For years, Ellen, a former staffer for a Republican on Capitol Hill, worked with a serial sexual harasser. His methods were myriad: He’d make sexually explicit comments in the middle of meetings. He’d come up behind her desk chair and grind himself against it. The staff offices on Capitol Hill can be snug, and he would take advantage of this, coming into her workspace while she was meeting with constituents and standing so close that his penis was touching her arm through his pants. Once, at a work function they both were attending, he walked up to her, interrupted the conversation she was having, and slapped her on the butt. Both Ellen and the person she was talking to were too stunned to say anything about it.
She was far from his only target. He was notorious for getting too drunk at after-work events and then kissing or groping other women. He made aggressive passes at the younger aides in the office, including interns. Those he slept with were quickly discarded; those who rebuffed him were punished: their projects would be withheld, he’d lodge complaints with their superiors.
Ellen and her female colleagues tried to stop him. They reported him, repeatedly, to his supervisor. Each time, they were told something would be done, but nothing ever changed. The best they felt they could do was look out for each other and try to warn new co-workers.
If Ellen’s story were to follow the trajectory of other high-profile sexual-harassment stories that have been in the news for the last month, this would be the part where the serial harasser was named, shamed, and drummed out of his position. But that’s not going to happen. Ellen, who like most of the women in this story asked for anonymity because of fear of retribution, has come to the same conclusion as a lot of women in Washington: It’s not safe to speak up.
“I don’t want publicity. I don’t want trouble,” she told me. “I’m sorry I’m so paranoid. This town is so damned small, and no one can keep a secret.”
The sexual-harassment revolution is coming more slowly to Washington. Even the four female lawmakers who recently told the Associated Press of sexual harassment they faced from their male co-workers didn’t feel comfortable sharing the names of their harassers. “I’m not sure women in D.C. would be rewarded for their bravery [if they came forward], it’s just a different business,” Ellen says. “The thing about this town is that everyone is connected. The people who get ahead keep the peace and angle everything to their advantage.”
Add to that the tribal nature of politics: Most aides are terrified of doing anything that might bring bad press for their boss, or their side. “There’s an anti-snitch sorta thing — you don’t air your dirty laundry,” says Anne Gregory Teicher, a Democratic campaign manager. “It gives the other side power.”
And it doesn’t stop when the campaign is over. “Staffers are told from day one that they do not talk to press, full stop,” says Travis Moore, a former legislative director for the now-retired representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. As a Waxman aide, he says, “I spoke to a reporter once, on background, and I was incredibly nervous going into it … people are socialized not to ever talk about what’s wrong in the institution because it could reflect poorly on their member of Congress. There’s a culture that doesn’t accept criticism unless you’re talking about partisanship. It’s really bad for the institution.”
I heard similar rationales from the other women I reached out to. “We’re all a bit more scared. We don’t have platforms like big-name actresses do,” says Alyssa, a public-policy expert who regularly interacted with politicians through her job at a think tank. Once, she remembers, a former GOP White House official came up behind her at work and started rubbing her shoulders. At a work dinner on another occasion, a now-former senator rubbed her legs beneath the table until she got up and hid in the bathroom.
Men who work in less-visible positions of power seem to operate with the knowledge that they will likely never be exposed. Daniela, who started working at a D.C. think tank before moving into the federal sector, remembers a male mentor regularly asking her to lunch, under the guise of offering her career advice. At the end of each meeting, he’d inevitably stick his tongue in her mouth. It took her years to even acknowledge to herself that it wasn’t a mistake. And when she did, the most she could think to do was cut him off. “The fear of retribution is the first thing you learn when you move here,” she says. “Connections are everything, and if your connection, or a connection of your connection, has heard a story about you, or that you’re a problem, or that you tend to go over people’s heads, then that’s going to really impact your ability to move up and go higher in this incredibly insular city. For the vast majority of women I know, that’s why they’ve never spoken up, unless they’re leaving D.C. for good. They worry it would come back to haunt them.”
When Miryam, another Hill staffer, was 22, two older male staffers from a neighboring congressional office invited her out for drinks after work. What she thought would be a networking experience soon turned sexually threatening: The men drove her to a bar in Georgetown, where they sat close to her and tried to give her shoulder rubs. When she asked to be driven home, one of them jumped in the back seat beside her and groped her, attempted to kiss her, and asked her to join him for one last drink in a hotel room. “I remember thinking, What if he hadn’t driven me home?” she says. It was an education, of sorts, into the power dynamics on Capitol Hill. She still sees the men all the time at her job.
The sexual dynamics of politics aren’t limited to Washington. In statehouses, especially, the power of male lawmakers is often less scrutinized by the press and public than it is inside the Beltway. “Sexual harassment exists in every sort of profession that has a transactional component to it — I need something and they have the power — it’s like being a waitress,” says Kirsten, a lobbyist working in a statehouse in the Northeast. “For me and my young peers that are lobbyists, we’ve all been grabbed, we’ve all been solicited, we’ve all been asked to trade sex for bills. That’s just how it is, that’s the way it works. We all have these conversations that we can’t be the ones to say that, other men should be the ones who are holding other men accountable. We shouldn’t be in a position where we have to put ourselves and our ability to work within this man’s industry out there in order to make a change.”
The reporting process for sexual harassment varies by statehouse, but it’s often woefully inadequate. “The system depends too heavily on the character of those in leadership and puts too much of the burden on the victim who reports,” says Missouri House of Representatives Democrat Lauren Arthur. The same is true on Capitol Hill. As Slate reported last week, staffers with sexual-harassment complaints are, in theory, supposed to report them to the Office of Compliance. Most aren’t aware it exists. Even when they are, the reporting system is byzantine and complicated. There’s no formal requirement that all members and staff take training on workplace harassment — as a result, many offices don’t have any training at all.
But the national sexual-harassment reckoning that the Harvey Weinstein allegations produced may yet reverberate in Capitol Hill. The House Administration Committee announced a hearing on sexual harassment in Congress next week, following Speaker Paul Ryan’s email to staff requesting that every office participate in prevention training. Before the hearing, the chairman and all leaders of the House and Senate will receive a letter demanding Congress reform its sexual-harassment training and prevention programs. The letter was written by Moore, the Waxman aide, who says he was inspired to start circulating it after watching Representative Jackie Speier, another California Democrat, recount being forcibly kissed by a chief of staff when she was a young congressional aide. “Current staff can’t speak out on this,” Moore says, “but for those of us that are out here, there’s an obligation to stand up for them.”