Sex scandals: the old reliable of the news media business. A congressman might hustle for months trying to get even 30 seconds of news coverage for proposed legislation, but as Rep. Vance McAllister has discovered, 30 seconds of kissing someone who is not your wife on camera means guaranteed hours and, if it really blows open, days of coverage. It’s no surprise, then, that Rep. Jackie Speier would want to muscle in on that coverage by linking the kissing scandal to her desire to pass a law requiring sexual harassment training for congressional representatives and their staffs.
In a short speech before the House on Tuesday, Speier argued that the McAllister scandal just shows how badly anti-harassment legislation is needed. “Regrettably this week, another one of our colleagues was discovered engaged in inappropriate action with one of his staff,” she explained after chastising her colleagues for treating Congress less like a dignified body and more like a “frat house.” She then went on to describe her frustration at watching Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’$2 1991 nomination hearings, where Hill was treated with undue contempt by a bunch of male senators who seemed to believe that women routinely make false allegations for the lulz. Speier worries that not enough progress has occurred since then, and her colleagues need a little more education about the issue of sexual harassment.
Speier is right, of course, that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that if “over 60 percent of the corporations in this country” have sexual harassment training, as she claims, then it absolutely makes sense for Congress to require the same. But I question the wisdom of tying this kind of legislation to the McAllister scandal, and I worry about the term “sexual harassment” being used as a catch-all phrase and losing its meaning. Sexual harassment is unwanted and harassing attention of a sexual nature—the sort that Hill famously described receiving from Thomas. Right now, there’s no reason to believe that McAllister’s married kissing partner, Melissa Hixon Peacock, was doing anything but enthusiastically consenting.
This difference is not trivial. Anti-feminists already love to accuse feminists of being uptight prudes for speaking out against coercive and harassing sexual behavior. It’s probably wise to avoid giving them ammunition by tying the word harassment to a situation where both parties appear, on tape at least, to be throwing themselves into it whole-heartedly.
“It is not OK to fondle a staff member,” Speier declared. Sure, most of us would probably agree. Fondling your underlings is an unprofessional breach of basic workplace ethics. But if that staff member is freely and happily fondling you right back, it’s not harassment.