This week, the Missouri state house discussed implementing a dress code specifically for interns as a means of combating sexual harassment in the Jefferson City legislature. Yeah, you read that right. After two lawmakers resigned following allegations that they had sexually harassed interns, the House stopped the intern program, and is currently examining ways to reform it so as to prevent lawmakers and lobbyists from taking advantage of young interns in the future. Chief among the initial suggestions was the instigation of a dress code for interns that encouraged modest, professional attire.
This, of course, assumes that lawmakers can’t be expected to control their own sexual urges and shouldn’t be required to police their own behavior, instead placing the blame for sexual harassment firmly on the shoulders of the college-aged interns who choose to wear dresses to work.
Fortunately, after social media largely lambasted the proposal, Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson (R) released a statement saying that it is off the table, and that the legislature-wide dress code — which covers lawmakers, lobbyists, and all legislative staff members, including interns — is sufficient.
While working on the program redesign, Rep. Kevin Engler (R) solicited ideas from his colleagues in the House. In response, Rep. Bill Kidd (R) suggested that the legislature adopt a dress code for interns, and the proposal met with favor among some of his Republican colleagues, both male and female. “We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” Rep. Nick King (R) wrote in an email to colleagues. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.” Meanwhile, Rep. Kathy Swan (R) noted that it is a norm for workplaces to have dress codes in order to safeguard a professional environment.
Of course, Rep. Sue Meredith (D) of St. Louis noted that the legislature does in fact already have a universal dress code. According to the employee handbook, which was given to the interns this year, employees are required to dress “professionally and appropriately”:
Men are required to wear a jacket and necktie for admission to the side galleries of the House Chamber. Women should dress in appropriate business attire (such as dress, suit, dress slacks and jacket).
Democrats largely responded to the dress code proposal with scorn, arguing that the interns’ clothes weren’t responsible for the sexual harassment problems facing the legislative body. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D, MO) intervened, sending state lawmakers a letter criticizing the proposal: “[The proposed dress code] reeks of a desire to avoid holding fully accountable those who would prey upon young women and men seeking to begin honorable careers in public service."
Twitter also took the contingent behind the dress code to task for the ill-judged idea, which resembles the logic behind a lot of victim-blaming responses to rape which focus on the victim’s behavior rather than that of the perpetrator. “We trust y'all to make our laws but you can't trust yourselves around interns in business casual? Makes sense,” tweeted Jennifer Bennett.
On Tuesday, Richardson quieted the storm somewhat by releasing a statement that said that the House would not be adopting an intern-specific dress code.
Nothing has been finalized yet regarding the new and improved intern program. To its credit, the House is also considering an ombudsman program, as well as mandatory training for both interns and their supervisors.
The Missouri state legislature has had a turn in the national spotlight over the past few months for its freewheeling culture of sexual advances. Former House Speaker John Diehl (R), made headlines in May after The Kansas City Star reported that he had exchanged sexually suggestive texts with a 19-year-old college freshman interning in the state house for the semester. Diehl at first denied the allegations and tried to halt the Star’s printing of the story. But he eventually stepped forward to acknowledge that he had made a mistake in engaging in the inappropriate relationship, and he then resigned.
And then in July, Sen. Paul LeVota (D) stepped down after a Senate investigation into intern harassment found that two former interns had accused him of sexual harassment. One intern, Alissa Hembree, said she quit her internship three months early to get away from the harassment. Before she took the drastic step of leaving her job, Hembree said that she had first tried to change her appearance to make herself less noticeable, cutting her hair and trading in her dresses and heels for slacks and oxfords.
Another, Taylor Hirth, told The Star that she had to repel LeVota’s advances via text message when she was interning for the lawmaker back in 2010. When he asked her over to his place in Jefferson City for a drink, she responded that she had a rule against drinking alone with married men.
“Good rule,” he allegedly responded, according to text messages that Hirth provided to The Star. “Let’s say this. You are smoking & funny & smart, all around cool chick. As far as ‘the moves,’ I’m in if you are. If not, remember that I think you’re a cool chick, I like you, & we can be friends. Got it?”
But it appears that the problem didn’t stop and end with LeVota and Diehl. The Star reports that accounts of sexual harassment are rife among women who have worked in or with the legislature, even though official complaints are rarely filed. Instead, women describe an environment in which young, inexperienced and professionally precarious women are often subjected to all sorts of mistreatment, innuendos, objectifying talk, sexual advances, and retaliations for “not being game” from older, more established, and more powerful men on the circuit of legislative and lobbying work.
One former intern told The Star about a time when she was on the floor of her office, filing paperwork. A lobbyist came in and told her that she didn’t always need to be on her knees when he was around. Another intern said that she was out getting drinks with colleagues when a male lawmaker came up to her and began to touch her. And Kelly Schultz, who serves as the director of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, had to shut down a male colleague from texting her intern by using the intern’s phone to reprimand him: “This is Kelly. Don’t text my intern.”
All of these examples indicate how normalized sexual advances had become in the Missouri legislature’s work environment. As the House rightly noted by shutting down the intern program, this isn’t just the case of catching one or two bad apples. (As Schultz told The Star, "You could have inserted many names into that story, and I would not have been surprised.”) To remedy an entrenched culture of gendered harassment requires directing attention to the root of the problem, and that isn’t a women’s bare knee. Lawmakers should focus on providing greater accountability mechanisms, as well as a support network for those interns who do experience inappropriate contact with lawmakers or lobbyists.
Part of the problem stems from the lack of consequences that would-be harassers face for their actions. “If a legislator harasses a staff member, the general feeling is that nothing is going to happen,” a female former assistant told The Star. “It’s not like [the legislator] can get fired. But our lives can be ruined.”
Yet even without the dress code on the table, some of the proposed reforms specifically seek to regulate what sorts of people can serve as interns — GPA requirements, a certain number of completed credit hours, etc. As two of the former interns who complained of harassment from their employers note, such an emphasis still fails to put the onus for a safe workplace culture where it belongs: on the people who are doing the harassing.
“Suggestions requiring certain GPAs, increased supervision and mandatory dress codes suggest that the interns are lacking in quality, knowledge, or character and are in some way to blame for the harassment they experience,” Hirth and Hembree said. “Additionally, it implies that those perpetuating this behavior are unable to control their own behaviors.”