By Madeleine Neal
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., former Judge Roy Moore, an Alabama candidate for Senate, former President George H.W. Bush, and President Donald Trump all have something in common: numerous women have accused them of sexual assault/harassment.
With the surge of women coming forward to share their personal experiences with sexual violence, U.S. senators have begun to fight back at national and state levels.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, joined Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in introducing a Senate resolution that would require sexual-harassment-prevention training for all Senate employees.
The senators proposed the resolution Nov. 7 after countless women had come forward.
Combating sexual violence in the community and on campus
Susan Junis, an assistant director of prevention and outreach at the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, called today’s environment powerful and historical.
“We’re seeing a lot of tides turning toward believing survivors in a way that we rarely see in our culture, and I think that’s really promising and I hope it is a trend that continues,” Junis said. “What we’re seeing is a very small portion of what is actually happening.”
While she said she is certainly not against prevention training in the Senate, she noted that it’s important to know that the negative behavior is often learned early in life.
“I think if we want to end sexual violence, we need to start much earlier and start talking about consent, and boundaries, and respect at much earlier ages than when someone’s in his 30s and has an incredible amount of power,” she said.
But the conversation at any level, Junis said, is still important.
“If someone who is just entering a senatorial or representative position is talking about this, there are discussions happening, that’s good — and also shouldn’t be the only thing that’s happening,” she said.
Having powerful people speak out against sexual violence, Junis said, plays a role but not the most powerful one. Instead, the war against sexual violence can only be won with the complete upending of our culture, she said.
“… Changing the way that we talk about consent and relationships, respect — all of those topics need to really be upended,” she said. “We normalize sexual violence, and so when we’re talking about culture change, we need so many pieces to align. Which is why culture change is really exhausting work — because it takes generations.”
While legislation can be beneficial, Junis said, prevention needs to go further.
“[Implement] a funded mandate that says that we need to have healthy relationships and respect curriculum in our schools so that people are learning these behaviors before they are entering positions of power,” she said.
University of Iowa sophomore Maya Altemeier agrees that sexual-assault-prevention education is not where it needs to be.
“I think a huge thing for me that I’ve noticed from [my] friends experiencing sexual assault and harassment and then also from the outside seeing what’s going on with other people experiencing it, it’s just really difficult for victims to come forward with their experiences, and it’s hard for people to report their perpetrators because there’s a lot of victim-blaming,” Altemeier said.
In-person training would have been helpful upon attending the UI, she said, along with calling sexual assault for what it is.
“The number of times I hear a girl talking about a guy groping her at a bar or at a school event and people say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not sexual assault, that’s just a boy being stupid’ — that’s really frustrating to hear,” she said.
Cody Howell, a Violence Prevention Specialist at the UI’s Women’s Resource & Action Center, said sexual violence is a community-wide problem that needs a community-wide solution.
“When those who hold powerful positions prioritize prevention efforts, it shows that they are not only talking the talk, but actually putting effort into actions that will have huge impacts on the community around them,” Howell wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. “The bipartisan effort to bring sexual violence prevention shows that they are acknowledging a very real and very dangerous problem that is affecting not just college campuses, but workplaces like the senate.”
Local legislators, business owners, community leaders, and community members, Howell said, need to push for prevention education.
“If senators can unite and say that they see an issue like sexual violence as a real problem, so can local business owners and school administrators,” he said.
Because the legislation acknowledges the problem with sexual violence, Howell said it does have an impact.
“This is a great step in the right direction and there is still work to be done if we want a community free of sexual violence.”
Sexual violence in politics and on college campuses, however, is not the only issue being addressed. The U.S. military also has a major problem.
Sexual assault in the military
Ernst joined Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in reintroducing the Military Sexual Assault Victims Empowerment Act, which would allow sexual-trauma survivors in the military, to seek a provider outside the VA if their needs are not met. The act was first introduced in February 2016.
When Kate Germano, the chief operating officer at the Service Women’s Action Network, spoke with the DI earlier this year, she said she appreciated the senators looking into the issue of sexual assault in the military.
“It’s a problem that we all need to be focused on,” Germano said.
The Service Women’s Network, whose website refers to it as a member-driven community, works to meet the collective needs of women in the military.
“Here’s the deal: The Air Force has the lowest rates of sexual assault, and the Marine Corps has the highest, despite the fact that they’re the smallest,” Germano said. “[The Air Force is] the most progressive service when it comes to having more progressive policies when it comes to women … and family. So when you establish a culture where women and men are respected equally, you’re more likely to retain talent and have people who respect the other people they serve with.”
The Marine Corps, she said, is an extremely hyper-masculine and segregated environment.
“When you have a culture in which women are the other, then they are the target,” she said.
By allowing integration and building talent-based respect, Germano said, a more understanding culture can be created.
“This is a time of great transition for the military. We’re really happy with the direction that the army is taking in terms of the ground combat integration process,” she said. “Everything in the military is about accountability.”
Haley Downing, a staff psychologist with the Women’s Clinic and Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator at the Iowa City Veterans Medical Center, said there is some promise in bystander intervention for sexual harassment and sexual assault.
“… I know that the military has tried to implement that in various branches,” Downing told the DI earlier this year. “One of the other issues is with the power structures, and the difficulty is that you can’t really control that without changing military laws.”
Downing said the Women’s Clinic partners with RVAP for Sexual-Assault Awareness Month every April.
“The thing I’ve found within the VA is … if you give them an opportunity and some education, there really is a lot of support and understanding — you just don’t really know about it until you talk about it,” she said. “We try to build relationships with local victim-advocate programs.”
Molly Hunter also contributed to the reporting for this story.