Combatting sexual harassment in the State Senate and on campus

The article below contains information about sexual assault and violence. If you or someone you know may be dealing with anything of this nature, Hope College has an anonymous reporting form you can access here.

Research from the CDC shows that nearly one in five women have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime. One in three female rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11-17 years old, and one in eight female rape victims reported that it occurred before age 10.

A prevalent, harmful and systemic issue, sexual assault pervades the lives of women worldwide, and Lansing’s political sphere is no exception. According to MLive, over 40 women who work in and around Lansing in politics spoke out about how Michigan’s political culture can be damaging to women and their careers. 

In the last high-profile test of Michigan’s House and Senate, former Republican Senator Peter Lucido lost his chair assignment after a Senate investigation found that sexual harassment complaints from three women — Michigan Advance reporter Allison Donahue, Senator Mallory McMorrow and lobbyist Melissa Osborn — were credible. Lucido denies that he harassed anybody. Other high-profile cases in the Michigan political sphere include the reports of inappropriate workplace behavior and sexual harassment from firm owner TJ Bucholz and accusations of sexual harassment against former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. According to allegations, he touched women without their consent and asked one woman to expose her breast. Emily Dievendorf, a Lansing-based political consultant, paved the way for the case against Bernero when she wrote a Facebook post about how he would show her pictures of his wife in a bikini and repeatedly proposition her for a threesome. “I told my story about TJ because to me, that was, that was my most visceral experience with sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and a consultant who claims to be progressive treating women in politics like they are nothing,” said Dievendorf. 

These are only a few of many sexual assault and harassment cases. The culture that treats women in these biased and hurtful ways is far greater than any single incident. Additionally, it is not an issue tied to any single party. “This is not partisan,” said political consultant Jenell Leonard. “It goes across the political spectrum of conservative to liberal, Republican, Democrat and anyone in between.”

This blatant sexism, which defines the political arena, has an enormous negative impact on women’s careers. “We have plenty of political consultants, myself being one of them, who have their finger on the pulse when it comes to what is happening in Michigan politics, who have run campaigns, who have worked in public policy for as long or longer than several of these men who say, ‘Oh, would you like my opinion on what is happening on the ground?’” said Dievendorf. “While women’s careers are impacted, men just keep getting more and more opportunities.”

Following a list of recommendations made by a bipartisan task force led by Senator Lana Theis and Senator Stephanie Chang, the Michigan Senate is working to update its sexual harassment policy to protect visitors and strengthen their reporting protocols. The new policy makes senators or staffers subject to disciplinary action if visitors are harassed and file complaints with the Senate Business Office. As of Saturday, April 24, the policy is expected to go into effect on Monday, April 26. 

“The new policy is the exact type of resource that will make it easier for people — both in and outside of the Senate — to document their concerns, compare them to the policy and feel empowered to move forward in a way that supports accountability and their own healing,” explained Elizabeth Battiste, a Lansing public relations consultant and former state Senate Democrats staff member. “Combatting sexual harassment and toxic workplace cultures require clear expectations and standards by which behavior and comments can be evaluated to re-establish what is and is not appropriate behavior.” 

According to MLive, however, many current and former legislative staffers have doubts that the policy could do much to protect employees and are still concerned that coming forward about sexual assault, harassment or other cases of sexism could negatively impact their careers. A recent Senate survey of all 413 current Senate members, staff and interns, 205 of whom responded, asked whether they’d been the target of inappropriate behavior by someone affiliated with the Senate in the last five years. Of those who responded, 18% of non-leadership staff, 26% of leadership staff, 57% of members, 22% of nonpartisan staff and 14% of nonpartisan managers/directors said they had. 20-26% of interns and staff who responded said they didn’t report the behavior because they didn’t think it was severe or pervasive enough, and many respondents cited fear of retaliation as one of the primary reasons they hadn’t reported inappropriate or harassing behavior in the past. Others said the reporting procedure was unclear, particularly when it comes to what behavior should be reported and what happens after a report is made.

How is sexism affecting Hope College and how can we address it? Christian Gibson, whose roles on campus include victim advocate and prevention educator, answered some questions about the actions students, staff and faculty can do to acknowledge and address sexual assault and harassment. 

What systems and resources do we have at Hope to prevent and address sexual assault and harassment on campus?

What can students do to prevent and address sexual assault and harassment on campus? 

  • The best thing students can do to prevent sexual assault and harassment is to step in when they observe something that they believe to be wrong or that makes them uncomfortable. We often shrug away from our inhibitions by telling ourselves that we are overreacting, that it isn’t our place, or we feel social pressure to go along with the group. The reality is, most sexual assault and harassment (along with other forms of interpersonal violence) is preventable. This is called Bystander Intervention.  At Hope, we use both the Green Dot Method as well as Step Up!. Some simple tips (from Step Up!) include: 
    • Notice the situation: Be aware of your surroundings.
    • Interpret it as a problem: Do I recognize that someone needs help?
    • Feel responsible to act: See yourself as being part of the solution by helping.
    • Educate yourself on what to do.
    • Intervene safely: Take action but be sure to keep yourself safe.

Sometimes conversations surrounding sexual assault can be really difficult to begin and continue. How can we foster healthy conversations that address such an important topic without hurting anybody? 

  • Yes, they are! The reality is none of us are left unaffected by interpersonal violence. We can start the conversation by talking about positive skills and strategies for living in healthy and authentic relationships. My favorite places to start are with the OneLove Foundation and You can also use the Equality Wheel as a tool (as well as the Power and Control Wheel). The more we can work to understand what it means to be in healthy relationships, the more we recognize warning signs of abuse or sexual assault/harassment. Last, consent is everything! If we want to talk about sexual assault and harassment, the first thing to do is ask – are you okay with this? Can we talk about this? And leave space for the other person to say no or set their boundaries to keep themself safe.

Carole Chee ('24) is the editor for the Beyond section. A double major in English and Women's & Gender Studies, you can find her around campus in the Keppel House, behind the library's research help desk, or in the theatre props shop! She is passionate about uplifting each person's unique story and voice.

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