Sexual Harassment Bill Needs a Well-Thought-Out Do-Over

Koren Frankfort

In spite of some of the assumptions I have had to quell, I haven’t had much to do with the bill being put forth that would create enforcement through ELEC for sexually preyed upon staffers of political campaigns.  So to answer the question, Are you excited about what is happening in Trenton to help women in politics?  The answer is: not particularly.  

In the beginning of The Working Group on Campaign Harassment, I had spoken with the members of that group wearing the hat of ‘the first woman to come forward publicly about the predations and toxic environment faced by women in this state.’  This group was founded two years after I wrote about the League being a hotbed of impropriety and predation, and one year after I left the state to take a lobbying contract.  Now, I didn’t want to elbow myself into this group’s dealings.  I didn’t have time to degrade myself that way.   I was relieved to see something, anything happening … even if it was doing the right thing for the wrong reasons … even if it was based in political necessity, and not entirely in the interest of survivors per se.  My hope was the ‘change’ would precipitate the ‘change of heart.’

(Obviously, I don’t want to assume, nor do I have the time to.)

Nevertheless, the reforms being put forth are woefully inadequate and the general treatment of those seeking real change appears to be abusive, misplaced, and counterproductive in NJ and Nationally.  So, in that order, I will break it down:

The hourly requirement for getting help or being educated in this bill:  Putting forth a time threshold for the education legitimizing a complaint of abuse is in itself abuse.  In a zero tolerance model, with the unit of measure being an hour, this is, what, a 280 tolerance model? That’s a little more than zero, no?  It doesn’t really seem to understand how campaigns work.  And it seems to contradict other labor contexts.  Moreover, it blithely ignores the experience of “the new girl.”  You know, “the new girl!”  That trope we all know well, that explains the experience of being freshly acquainted to a culture that requires you to “sink or swim.”  It’s so ingrained in our culture that it’s been featured in literature for centuries: 

See Emma’s friend in the book Emma, by Jane Austen; Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre.  For modern examples, the show New Girl might be a good example of the fascination with women in unfamiliar surroundings, or perhaps the entire plotline of Mean Girls …  But I digress.

I find it fundamentally embarrassing that it seems no one cared to point out that being unfamiliar is in itself a form of vulnerability, and vulnerability is a signal to predators.  Women need to be protected on Day 1 because Day 1 is when they need protection most.  I received more disgusting advances and mistreatment in the beginning when no one knew me, before I knew the ropes, before my onset of resting – nay active – angry lady face.  And that is not gender specific.  Women let me down more frequently early-on too.  From what I hear, that’s a truism. 

The Budget:  I’ll keep it short.  If over 50% of the over 500 person survey issued about misogyny in NJ politics said they experienced a form of harassment and abuse, then can the proposed budget of $2 million support the potential case load across the entire state?  Particularly if the percentages in the survey  represented a small part of the population, read: white privileged women?   I doubt it.   And, it would seem that there may be a need to invest in some equity measures too because enforcement in all enforcement agencies don’t perform so well across the board.  This is looking very unfunded mandate-esque to me.  Lawyers are expensive.  Our population is dense and we only scratched the surface.

I feel like we need a well thought out do-over.  Now, onto the treatment of survivors!

My personal experience with harassment in NJ is loaded.  I’ve been harassed. I was put on ice after talking about harassment and assault.  It took two years for people – men and women alike – to address what I said.  Luckily though, I am not a one-trick pony.  I have a skill for fundraising, national relationships of my own, an advanced degree in policy and management, lobbying experience, policy analyst experience, and other places to go.  I was able to overcome the malignancies of victim blaming without needing to publicly duke it out to protect my credibility, and ended up in the team of great allies to women.  Luck met preparation.

That isn’t universally true though.  I benefited – ironically – from having a war refugee as a father, my traumas from childhood, and reached a point of calm before I started talking about it.  Somehow, it became my benefit that all my hyper-arousal and fear – which was real – was largely out of the way before my career really began.  But with women in the early stages of their careers, who are traumatized by their careers, they are acutely experiencing hyper-arousal in anger and stress responses from acute trauma while they seek to address it.   Besides that, they’re attacked every step of the way.  This is a moral failure.

I challenge everyone to consider the lens through which a recently traumatized person sees: a trauma lens.  Beyond that, to reroute their empathy from the predator to the preyed upon, to look through a trauma lens of their own.  It is unfair to demand perfection from victims, but to not even demand basic decency from everyone else.  As an aside, empathy is a definitive quality of decent people.  Hopefully you know where you land.

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