In Congress with Predators: How powerful institutions in the US are responding to the recent onslaught of sexual allegations

[Written by Jack Pedersen]

Over the past months, the Western world has seen allegations of sexual assault surface at an alarming rate. But will our newfound awareness of this systemic problem prove too behindhand when seeking justice against some of America’s most powerful figures?

From the conventional media reports about stars such as Louis CK, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, to the nearly omnipresent #metoo circulating in the Twittersphere, we have garnered a new outlook on harassment these past years – as well as witnessing the use of female victims as political weapons in the 2016 presidential race, when Donald Trump arranged for Bill Clinton’s former accusers to be sat in the front row of a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.

Nevertheless, this is not the first time in living memory that our sensibilities have been heightened in regard to the mistreatment of women. In 1991, Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against her boss and the then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, went public, leading to a high-profile scandal; her story, along with those of other supposed victims’, sparked national debate. Despite the outcry, the US Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court, 52 votes to 48 (a nearly unprecedented bipartisan split). Albeit a closely contested appointment, it showed that, ultimately, the women’s pleas had been ignored. Moreover, his career was not affected by the allegations: in 2007, the still-serving Thomas was offered a $1.5 million advance for his memoir.

In comparison, this year we saw certain Hollywood actors’ careers cut to ribbons in moments. For example, after their alleged salacious actions surfaced, Louis CK and Kevin Spacey’s lives were almost immediately upended. Within days they lost movie deals, television appearances and, crucially, their credibility in the eyes of the public. (It is important to note that, while their careers may be disintegrating before them, so far neither actor has been asked to appear before court.)

Yet it is not just in the realms of the rich and famous that we must pursue change. Last year alone over 6,000 cases of sexual assault were registered by the US military. Only 6% of these made it to trial and, more shocking still, only 2% resulted in a conviction[1]. Furthermore, it is thought that only one third of victims actually came forward, leaving a possible 12,000 cases completely unreported.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is leading the charge in this arena, recently introducing two pieces of legislation on the subject. In a statement she firmly pointed the finger towards Capitol Hill, saying, “Congress should finally be out of excuses to continue protecting the status quo that harms our service members and protects predators.” Following up, she believes congressmen are consequentially representative of systematic failure to represent victims of sexual harassment: “to do less is to knowingly perpetuate a failed system.”

According to USA Today, Gillibrand even went on the change against the heads of her own party, declaring that Bill Clinton should have stepped down as President in response to the Lewinsky scandal. According to the Democratic Senator, he responded inappropriately.

Whilst it’s true that President Clinton’s tenure was tarnished by this scandal, there were other sexual assault claims brought against him. However, they did not receive their due recognition. One such case was the allegations brought forward by Juanita Broaddrick. Remaining a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party, her story has become a stalwart source of ammunition for the right wing media, even being used (without permission) in some of Trump’s campaign ads.

Somewhat ironically, Broaddrick’s renewed attempts at vindication came at the hands of Hillary Clinton when, in 2015, Clinton tweeted that all women “have the right to be believed”. Broaddrick, a former Obama voter, took to Twitter in 2016 to write, “I was 35 years old when Bill Clinton, Ark. Attorney General raped me and Hillary tried to silence me. I am now 73….it never goes away”.

Broaddrick maintains that President Clinton apologised to her in person in 1991, but to this day he denies the accusation entirely. Her story and its political appropriations are an example of yet another ignored woman; another example of a systematic failure to listen to potential victims.

Make no mistake: this is not a partisan issue. More recently, we’ve witnessed democratic senator Al Franken call for an ethics review of his own indecent actions. We’ve also seen Alabama (a state which hasn’t had a Democratic Senator in over 20 years) turn purple after the Republican candidate for Senate, Roy Moore, was swamped with allegations concerning the sexual harassment and abuse of teenage girls.

While the fact that these women being believed by a sizeable portion of the public shows a very positive and progressive step towards justice, the defence of Moore from the White House speaks volumes – especially given President Trump’s own history of allegations.

Whether the recent response to allegations may give hope for some of the 13 women who came out as victims before he took office (including a child rape case), it is uncertain whether their cases will ever be seriously heard. In a Guardian article published in October, one alleged victim said she expects that, like many men before him, Trump will escape trial and remain unbesmirched.

Looking at these cases, from Clarence Thomas to Donald Trump, one has to consider whether our society can truly quash systemic sexual harassment; or rather, are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?

For now, the path beyond is foggy, but the way is not completely obscured. If both major parties can truly band together and work out the fundamental problems in the military, in popular culture, and even within congress, we may begin to see real change. With adept lawmakers in charge, capable of establishing proactive and progressive legislation, then a brighter, safer and more just future will emerge on the horizon.

[1] Kirsten Gillibrand, The New Washington Podcast (19th Nov 17)

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