The Missouri state legislature has rejected the idea of a new, stricter dress codes for its legislative interns. Previously, Missouri legislators intended to create a stronger definition of appropriate dress for female interns despite the fact that the legislative intern handbook has clearly defined standards of dress. Both genders are expected to wear appropriate business attire. Men are required to wear a jacket and necktie. Woman have a choice of a suit, a dress, or dress slacks with a jacket.
The idea for the change to a more strict dress code was intended to prevent or at least discourage sexual harassment in the legislative office, however, it was an idea based totally wrong premise to begin with. Changing the way women dress does nothing to either deter or encourage sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment became an issue in the Missouri state legislature earlier this year when Republican John Diehl, Missouri House Speaker resigned over a scandal created when he was caught sexting with a legislative intern, a freshman college student. These texts included inappropriate remarks such as, “Will have my way with you and leave you quivering.” This is not only an extremely inappropriate thing to say to a coworker, it is a very frightening statement that might be said by a stalker.
Furthermore, it is a horrible thing to hear or read from a person who is being trusted by millions of people to make good and fair laws. It would be hard to trust him to do that when he is sexually harassing a young woman in the place where these laws are made.
Recently, in an attempt to prevent other such embarrassing incidents, Republican state Rep Kevin Engler was selected to lead his fellow legislators in creating a new policy to discourage further sexual harassment issues. After some consideration, he developed a list of ideas regarding how to keep further cases of sexual harassment and submitted it to his fellow legislators for their input.
His suggestions included:
- a minimum number of college credit hours and a minimum GPA (grade point average) for interns
- mandatory training for interns and supervisors
- creating an intern ombudsman
- banning electronic communication between interns and legislators
- mandatory training in sexual harassment protocols for Members of the legislature, staff and interns
- adoption of a formal code of ethics for Members, staff and interns
These all seem to be good ideas, but when Engler shared this plan with other legislators, Republican Bill Kidd responded that an intern dress code should be required. He was followed by Republican Rep. Nick King who agreed, saying, “We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both males and females. Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”
The statements of both these men are not only offensively sexist, they are utterly absurd. No study, going back to the 1970s and forward to today has ever shown that how a woman dresses has anything to do with sexual harassment. Women could go to work in burqas, body covered from toes to head with only their eyes showing, and they would still be sexually harassed by men in the workplace.
Sexual harassment has nothing to do with actual sexual desire. It is a power play against a vulnerable person who is in a weaker or lower position. It is this power and not sexual fulfillment that satisfies the harasser’s need. In this way sexual harassment is similar to rape in that the objective is to hurt and dominate the victim. The motive is physical or emotional violence, not pleasure.
Other myths about sexual harassment persist. Many people believe that sexual harassment in the work place is rare, but this is far from the truth. According to the University Counseling and Testing Center of the University of Oregon, 40 to 60 percent of all working women have been touched by sexual harassment. A similar statistic is found in female students in colleges and universities.
Another myth is that sexual harassment is trivial and women “get over it” but in fact the emotional devastation of sexual harassment is similar to that of women who have been raped. Psychologically they suffer from depression, shock, anger, fear, low self-esteem and guilt among other emotions. Physically they may have a number of symptoms including headaches, phobias, sleep disturbance and many other physical signs of anxiety. Often victims become unable to continue to do their jobs effectively.
These myths still exist in the minds of those who know no better, even though they are not factually true. This lack of belief and support makes it unlikely that victims of sexual harassment will ever tell anyone that it happened. They feel weak and ashamed for “letting” themselves be harassed and are thus more vulnerable to further harassment.
How sexual harassment affects families
Sexual harassment heavily impacts families because it can cause wives and mothers to withdraw not only from social life, but from their families as well. The mental, physical and career health of a sexually harassed woman is severely damaged, often resulting in she and her family falling apart and her husband and children may never fully understand why.
Fortunately for the Missouri legislative interns, other Missouri politicians spoke out against the dress code. State Rep. Bill Otto, a Democrat, messaged, “We’re really not going to require interns to dress so we’re less distracted, are we? All we need is a code of ethics and a penalty provision.”
Democratic U.S. Senator from Missouri Claire McCaskill sent a letter to the Missouri legislature. It states, “This problem has nothing to do with how interns are dressed. I refuse to stand by idly while any suggestion is made that victims of the sexual harassment in the Missouri legislature is the responsibility of anyone other than the legislators themselves.”
Republican Tod Richardson, the current Missouri state House Speaker at last brought the dress code issue to a close. He released a statement saying that a stricter dress code would not be part of the new intern policies.
The Missouri legislature sexual harassment problem has been resolved, as least for now. In the meantime sexual harassment still persists no only in the US, but around the world. Thousands if not millions of families lie in its wake, casualties of a system that still at heart believes that the victims have caused their own harassment.
Sources for this article include the Kansas City Star and an article written on Slate by Amanda Marcotte. For more information on the devastation effects of sexual harassment and how to fight back, go to University Counseling and Research.
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