The Legislature Can Take Action to Prevent Sexual Harassment and Assault. Here's How

The #MeToo movement underscored the myriad ways that power imbalances and a toxic culture increase the likelihood of sexual harassment and assault, across industries and across states. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey data for Massachusetts, nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men in Massachusetts have ever experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape. Nearly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men in MA have experienced rape, and more than 1 in 7 women have experienced rape.

The Massachusetts Legislature has the opportunity to take action this session by promoting healthy relationships and protecting the rights of those who seek to speak out. But time is short.

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The Senate passed An Act Relative to Healthy Youth (S2128/H3704), last year, and the House bill is before the Committee on Health Care Financing, with a reporting deadline of May 16th. This bill calls for age-appropriate and medically accurate sexual health education in each school district or public school that currently offers sexual health information.  

Numerous poignant statements from those who have experienced sexual assault and found nowhere to turn have been highlighted in the news recently. Preventive efforts are needed to reduce this kind of suffering.  We believe that young people need comprehensive sex education in order to grow up with a healthy sense of their own sexuality as well as respect for others feelings and boundaries. Most parents are not well equipped to address this complex subject fully. Many parents are too uncomfortable with the subject to even try.  Great numbers of children look for alternative sources such as pornography since they are naturally curious and want to understand their developing sexuality. These kids are getting distorted information that can lead to making poor decisions about consent in sexual relationships.

And both the House and the Senate can take action against the culture of silence around the issue by passing An Act to Improve Contract Provisions Waiving Certain Rights (H4058/S2186). This bill is sitting  before the committee on Labor and Workforce Development and has an extended reporting deadline of May 9th (next Wednesday).

In an assault on workers and on women especially, Donald Trump has rolled back regulations protecting individuals from forced arbitration and non-disclosure contracts.  Massachusetts has the opportunity to do better for our citizens. Too many companies care most about their bottom line and have little incentive to improve working conditions when complaints and settlements are secret.  

As the National Association of Consumer Advocates explains, under forced arbitration and non-disclosure agreements, “employees cannot sue for discrimination, harassment, abuse, retaliation or wrongful termination.”  As women, we are particularly interested in pointing out how forced arbitration clauses have helped perpetuate sexual harassment and sexual assault. Arbitration strongly favors the employer, and relatively few cases ultimately support the woman accusing the company of wrongdoing. Without sanctions, we submit that sexual abusers may believe they have done nothing wrong and will continue to abuse.  And if they understand their abuse is wrong, they know they will usually come away unscathed. Where does this leave women who find the courage to stand up for their rights?

Recent events have led women to begin speaking out about their personal experiences of sexual abuse.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and that 75 percent of abuse incidents go unreported. Fears of not being believed or of being re-victimized have caused women to be mostly silent until this moment in our history.  This silence is a pervasive problem that must be addressed.

 

Janis Soma is a member of the Progressive Needham Women’s Issues Working Group.

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