The Daily Beast‘s Olivia Messer posted a disturbing report late Wednesday describing serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault committed by two Texas State Senators (both Democrats), but far more disturbing than the specific allegations against the legislators is the widespread acknowledgement that this is the culture at the Capitol and victims have little to no hope for recourse.
Messer’s article describes accusations against State Senators Borris Miles (D-Houston) and Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio). These accusations were made by former legislative staffers and reporters who cover news at the Capitol, and were corroborated by their friends and colleagues, including another Democratic lawmaker.
The lengthy article is worth reading in its entirety, but the most salacious accusations include a former legislative intern who says she was standing outside an Austin nightclub when Miles waved a large roll of hundreds of dollars at her, and said, “B****, you want to f*** with me tonight?” to proposition her, and another time when Miles attended another legislator’s party at the Capitol and behaved in such an alarming way — including repeatedly brandishing a handgun he had in his pocket — that they shut the party down to get away from him.
Both Miles and Uresti are the subjects of multiple accusations that they groped and forcibly kissed women and frequently made crude and demeaning comments to female staffers, reporters, political consultants, and other young women whose work is related to the Capitol. Uresti in particular is described as having a penchant for young female staffers. Messer reports that both men deny the accusations.
As has been common in many of these stories, the accusers spoke to Messer under the condition she not use their names — including the man she identifies as “Chris,” another Democratic state legislator. “Several of the people interviewed for this story asked not to be named, as they still work in politics or journalism and fear either physical or professional retribution for coming forward,” says the disclaimer at the end of her article.
Think about that: years removed from the events, presumably more professionally established and no longer nervous rookies, at a time when victims of harassment are being believed and supported like never before, and they are still afraid. Even a male legislator who merely witnessed the harassment is nervous and fearing for his safety about coming forward.
Sadly, this reluctance to be named is understandable when you look at how powerful politicians strike out against those who do come forward.
Look at what’s happening in Florida, this time with a Republican, as State Sen. Jack Latvala (who until he was recently removed, wielded an immense amount of power as the senate budget chair) faces accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women. My colleague Brian Burgess at The Capitolist has a detailed story describing efforts by Latvala and his allies to humiliate and punish one of his accusers, outing her to the media despite reassurances from Senate investigators that her name would be kept confidential.
The Texas Legislature’s process for reporting harassment seems to offer even less protections than Florida’s. The Texas Tribune did an excellent job in a report last month covering the woeful lack of procedures for reporting harassment, much less ability to actually pursue any meaningful enforcement:
As sexual misconduct accusations pile up against men in power across the country, interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and legislative aides indicate sexual harassment not only is pervasive at the Texas Capitol but also regularly goes unchecked. Most of those interviewed described how men at the Capitol — some of them lawmakers — engaged in a wide range of harassment, including degrading comments and gestures, groping and unwanted sexual advances.
Yet not a single formal complaint of sexual harassment has been filed in either the House or Senate since 2011, according to a review of public records and interviews with officials responsible for fielding complaints. Even though sexual harassment policies have been in place for two decades, few employees interviewed by the Tribune even knew they could file a formal complaint.
House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) refused to answer questions from Tribune reporters about sexual harassment complaints because he claimed he had never received one.
“There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any,” Geren said. “I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.”
Geren later admitted that there had been “a few” complaints, but they had not been in writing because the women wanted to remain anonymous. He insisted that he had properly investigated these complaints and “resolved” them.
After recent reports by the Tribune and Daily Beast, the Texas House did pass a revised sexual harassment policy, but it still lacks enforcement teeth against actual legislators, and the Texas Senate has not held any hearings to consider revising the policies in their chamber.
Meanwhile, the women who must continue to walk the halls of the Texas Capitol have resorted to a unique self-help remedy: an anonymous spreadsheet listing male legislators, staffers, lobbyists, consultants, and other politicos who have sexually harassed or assaulted them.
The list, titled “Burn Book of Bad Men,” was first publicly reported last month, again by Messer.
“Rebecca” (not her real name), the former legislative staffer who started the Burn Book, told Messer that while they were not seeking retribution against the men on the list, they did want women to be able to warn each other and hoped that if men heard about the existence of the list, it might discourage them from misbehaving.
“I didn’t have any intention of sharing the list widely,” Rebecca said. “It just started as a tool for people who are connected to the Texas political sphere to just kind of share with their friends.
“We’re not seeking retribution,” she added, before noting: “It’s a signal for men to understand that we’re keeping tabs on this stuff and we’re talking about it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum and these aren’t isolated incidents. We’re putting them on notice that you’re not going to be able to get away with this stuff without it being shared.
“It’s a power thing,” she continued. “Talking about our stories together is a way to take back some of that power.”
I have personally spoken to multiple other Texas women who have independently confirmed the existence of the Burn Book, although I have not seen it myself. What they described in off the record conversations ranges from the annoying (legislators who claim to be champions of women’s rights but constantly make sexist comments) to horrifying (sexual assaults and date rape drugs).
Not only do these women have no faith that the Texas Legislature would take any punitive action against their harassers, some of what they described reaches the level of criminal conduct. How much of this reluctance to report is a lack of faith that the criminal justice system would adequately punish these predators, and how much is due to the fear of professional consequences, for being labeled “difficult,” cannot be determined.
The bottom line is that despite social media hashtags and TIME Magazine covers celebrating women coming forward, here we have a group of intelligent professional women who have given up all hope that the system will protect them, and the best they believe they can do right now is warn each other “it’s not safe to be alone with the men on this list.”
What a depressing thought.
I honestly don’t blame the women; just look at the story of Latvala’s accuser I mentioned above, or how Lauren Greene, who watched her political career disintegrate after she sued Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) for sexual harassment. Greene ended up leaving D.C. and has been unable to find a full time job, taking on temp work and babysitting, plus some financial support from her parents.
The tide has slowly been starting to turn regarding sexual harassers and abusers finally facing real consequences — Harvey Weinstein kicked out of his production company, Kevin Spacey fired and his roles recast, Sen. Al Franken expected to resign this week — but what hasn’t happened is any real action to protect the women making the accusations.
A woman who rejects her boss when he propositions her for sex isn’t “difficult.” A young reporter isn’t a “troublemaker” if she objects when a legislator gropes and forcibly kisses her. Staffers aren’t “whining” when they get annoyed that a lobbyist constantly makes sexist, degrading comments. An actress isn’t “untalented” because she refuses a massage from Harvey Weinstein.
You want to support women? Join in TIME’s celebration of the “Silence Breakers”? Fight against the culture that allows such harassment and abuse to fester unchallenged for decades?
…Then make a real effort to hire and promote the women making these accusations.
Because until we stop punishing the victims, the predators will continue to attack.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.