10 Steps Congress Must Take To Improve Its Sexual Harassment Training

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The #MeToo wave has officially hit Capitol Hill, already taking down several lawmakers in its early stages. Even before some of them handed in their resignations, Congress had already made some changes to its sexual harassment training policies. Deciding what should be required as part of Congress' sexual harassment training, though, should require a longer process than simply asking the Office of Compliance (OOC), which normally deals with sexual harassment complaints, to design a typical course.

Regular sexual harassment training practices haven't worked, a fact that has been made abundantly clear by the scores of women who have spoken out about misconduct at the workplace as a part of the #MeToo movement. In fact, some studies even claim that traditional sexual harassment training provokes backlash amongst the men who take part in it, making the situation even worse for the women who work with them. Congress only recently made sexual harassment training mandatory, and while it's unclear what exactly this training looks like, it's quite likely it would be somewhat traditional — like an impersonal seminar or PowerPoint presentation employees sit through that doesn't actually help solve the problem of pervasive sexual harassment in any given workplace.

Part of this is caused by a focus on legal liability rather than on culture change. When the trainings instruct men on how to avoid legal action against themselves and the organization — or company, or lawmaker's office — for whom these men work, they don't actually make any attempt to change the culture. This doesn't make things any better for the victims, so the cycle continues. Therefore, Congress will have to go a bit further if they want to actually make it a safe environment for both staffers and congresspeople.


A Discussion Beyond "What Is Sexual Harassment"

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If you look at the prominent cases of sexual harassment and abuse that have come to light recently, it's clear that in most cases, those accused knew that what they were allegedly doing was wrong. "They’re already demonstrating they know what they’re doing is wrong by taking great stakes to hide it so that they don’t incur repercussions," says Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "That to me is an indication that they already know what the difference is."

Men have expressed confusion about whether they may have crossed the line into impropriety without knowing it, but there's no training that could ever adequately cover every potential situation. Instead of simply trying to define what constitutes sexual harassment, the training needs to address the underlying issues that lead to it, such as subconscious misogyny and employers taking advantage of their employees' vulnerability.

What it all comes down to is a culture that, up until now, has permitted men in powerful positions to sexually harass men and women them without consequences, and it's that culture that must change.

Given the confusion that some men have expressed over whether a hug or a question about a coworker's weekend could be construed as sexual harassment, it is actually necessary to first define the problem — but it's also necessary to go beyond that and to explain how seemingly innocuous gestures or words from men in power can, in certain contexts, be much more sinister.


Training Tailored To The Specific Environment Of Congress

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Instead of generic training schemes that could be used in any situation, congressional sexual harassment training needs to actually address the situation specific to Congress. "If I’m a member of Congress and I’m watching a cheeseball video about something that happens in a fast food restaurant, it’s not gonna fly to me," Houser tells Bustle.

The fact that any sexual harassment training should be tailored for the environment in which it's being administered may seem like a given, but the Guardian reports that it's all too often ignored. This, then, is part of what contributes to men reacting negatively to it.

Congress is a high-risk environment for sexual harassment, and the training needs to address all of those risk factors: Constant high pressure situations; a workforce with more men than women, particularly in leadership roles; huge power differentials between employees; a multitude of young workers; a workplace that encourages alcohol drinking outside of work, and coarse social interaction at the workplace and outside of it.

"I think all of those things are pretty inherent," Houser says.


An In-Person Trainer Who Understands The Issue

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Ebony Tucker, Advocacy Director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, says that the person involved in planning the training should be "someone who understands sexual violence, [like] a survivor or advocate."

And that person can't just be speaking through a screen — they should be there in person, reacting to their trainees and answering questions as necessary. "You want qualified in person trainers. Video training, web portal training, is used but isn’t nearly as effective," says Houser. "We’ve had a lot of conversations about the importance of bringing in well-trained professionals, that we really should be using people from the prevention field, not just HR attorneys. Very different focuses, very different expertise."


A Plan To Address It On The Front Lines

"We need to be empowering people to address them on the front lines and not let everything run up a chain of command that only enables people at the very top to make decisions," Houser tells Bustle. "That’s not effective."

The victims, she points out, don't want an overreaction; they want an appropriate reaction, and that's more likely to come if the disclosure of sexual harassment doesn't have to include everyone's bosses' bosses. Instead, managers at each level need to be empowered to make decisions on how to react.


Proper Responses To Victim Disclosure

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"The training should really highlight proper responses to survivor disclosures of sexual violence," Tucker tells Bustle, another aspect of any previous training that has been missing. While due process for those accused is certainly necessary, the immediate reaction to a disclosure cannot be an overly-defensive smear of the alleged victim's reputation.

The recent disclosures of sexual harassment and sexual violence have been met with a range of reactions, from denials of the victims' trustworthiness to pledges to improve behavior to, in a few select cases, actual apologies. This doesn't mean that every person accused of sexual harassment needs to jump straight to an apology, especially if they disagree with the victim's account — but the impulse to immediately discredit the accuser also must be excised.


A Discussion Of Power Dynamics

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It goes without saying that Congress is a very hierarchical place, so the training absolutely must address power dynamics in the workplace and how they affect sexual harassment. This is one aspect of what sexual harassment actually is that men in positions of power may not actually understand, because they're just not familiar with the conditions that women put up with on a daily, even an hourly, basis. A man in power would feel comfortable saying no to the advances of someone subordinate to them, because it wouldn't represent a threat to their job, their continued comfort at the workplace, or even their safety.

Women who endure sexual harassment at the workplace, however, do so in large part because they don't want to risk a negative reaction — be it a demotion, verbal assault, or even violence — from the harasser. Men in the workplace must therefore understand how power differentials can contribute to women's fear, and that will help them understand how to avoid inadvertently crossing the line between friendliness and harassment.


A Discussion Of Healthy Masculinity

Yes, women can also be perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse. But in the current climate, men are far more likely to be the sexual harassers and abusers, and a lot of that comes down to toxic masculinity — and a lack of understanding among men of what toxic masculinity actually is.

When they do understand the difference between toxic masculinity — which insists on maintaining power and dominance at the expense of revealing any vulnerability or empathy with those over whom they extend their dominance — and healthy masculinity, that will go a long way towards solving the problem.

While it's unlikely that any one training session could eradicate toxic masculinity in a place like Congress, where those at the top only got there because of a strong demand for power, it's absolutely necessary that the training at least address it and begin a conversation about it.


Bystander Intervention Training

Both Tucker and Houser agree that bystander intervention, or teaching people to react whenever they witness anything approaching sexual harassment, is absolutely key to any congressional sexual harassment training program. "We need to be empowering people to lead by example, to intervene early," Houser says.

And what would bystander intervention training actually entail? Instead of focusing on just trying to stop people from behaving in a manner that constitutes sexual harassment, it would focus on trying to recognize sexual harassment, so that those who witness it would feel more comfortable stepping in and standing up for the victim. There are sexual harassers, and then there are enablers — and bystander intervention training, one of the most effective training methods out there, cuts out those enablers to make situations involving sexual harassment more toxic to the harasser than to the victim.


A Consistent Policy Across Congress

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We think of Congress as a unified body, but in fact it's made up of the offices of each congressman and congresswoman. Determining their own methods of dealing with sexual harassment is not effective. Houser emphasizes that there needs to be a consistent environment, and the way you get a consistent environment is by maintaining and enforcing a universal policy that the congresspeople and staffers from each office must follow.


Empathy For Survivors

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Building empathy for the victims of sexual harassment isn't something that you can pinpoint with one PowerPoint presentation; instead, it must be the ultimate goal of any training program. Tucker aptly explains both what this means, and why it's so important:

In these trainings you want people to actually learn and come to understand an issue that has been happening around them for most of their lives but that they've been allowed to ignore. There is not one element but a variety of elements that bring you to a basic belief in empathy for survivors and calling out harmful behavior. Working in an environment free of violence and oppression is a basic human right. Until we make sure everyone understands that, we can't change workplace culture successfully.

If Congress does come up with a new training program, whoever's responsible for crafting it will have a difficult job on their hands. Congress is extremely visible, and in an ideal world, it would model the culture and behavior that should be found at workplaces across the country. Right now it seems to be pretty much the exact opposite, but mandating sexual harassment training will go a long way towards fixing that — that is, if they focus on actually understanding and changing the culture that makes it possible.