Sexual Harassment is about Power

There are two major categories of problem presented by certain New Hampshire House Representatives’ belief that they should be allowed to skip sexual harassment training, and that they find it something to criticize, joke about, and jeer at. First, their disdain and recalcitrance point out a basic failure to understand or respect the right not to be subjected to sexual harassment. Second, their refusal to follow the rules of the House, and to learn how to avoid incurring liability on behalf of the taxpayers, is a failure to uphold their oaths of office and to respect either the taxpayers or the laws of our state and nation. House members who maintain their ignorance about sexual harassment risk lawsuits, which they will then expect New Hampshire taxpayers to foot the bill for. The recalcitrant representatives’ objections to the training demonstrated the need for it more clearly than any statistic ever could.

Sexual harassment is commonly defined as unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances. The EEOC definition includes “making offensive comments about women in general” The critical word is “unwelcome”, which representative McKinney particularly does not seem to understand.

Representative Burns claims that he doesn’t need the training because he was raised to be “especially respectful of women”. He implies that he, not women or the legislature, should be allowed to define what it means to be respectful of women, and that is all he needs to know about sexual harassment. His position conveniently ignores the fact that learning to be “respectful of women” when he was growing up likely meant something very different than it does now, that it says nothing about his understanding of sexual harassment, and that men can be victims of sexual harassment, too.

Sexual harassment includes many things that were widely practiced and, to one degree or another, socially acceptable when Representative Burns was being raised to be “respectful”. A lot of things have changed in fifty years. For example, it is now illegal to ask a woman in a job interview whether she plans to have children, how many, and when, or about her menstrual cycle or sex life. Since 1993, marital rape has been illegal in all fifty states.  Great strides have been made, but sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination are still with us and still an overwhelming problem. It is the height of arrogance for anyone to claim that they know everything there is to know about a subject and are insulted by the idea that they could benefit from education. The recalcitrant representatives believe they should be exempted from training intended to prevent both civil and criminal offenses so widespread, so common and every-day, that at least 80% of women have experienced them.

In a nutshell: sexual harassment is not about sexual attraction, it is about power. It happens literally everywhere. Unfortunately, far too many people do need a class to learn whether or not it is okay to tell that co-worker, employee, colleague, or passerby what you think of her looks, body, attitude, clothing, or facial expression. They need to be taught that women are not objects here to beautify their world, please them, do their bidding, or care what they think (“Smile, you look so much prettier!”), and that women are people with the same rights as men – among them, the right to live their lives without being subject to the constant interference and appraisal of the men around them. That is a lesson that many people, of both genders, need to have driven home. They need the training.

In the specific case of New Hampshire lawmakers, we have a history of not only sexual harassment (, but of “we the taxpayers” paying judgments and settlements caused by the willful ignorance or arrogance of said lawmakers (

Tolerance of sexual harassment helps perpetuate a society that devalues women and tolerates all violations of women’s rights, up to and including sexual assault and murder. Prior to the requirement, only about 10% of House members bothered to attended the training, and some members still go so far as to refuse to even read the House anti-sexual harassment policy. Why is the House as a body’s response so tepid? These representatives’ behavior is outrageous – the consequences should reflect that.

If government representatives refuse to even attempt to learn how to avoid creating a hostile work environment or incur liability on the state’s (and taxpayers’) behalf; if they insist on placing themselves above the rules of the House and above the law; they should not just be reprimanded. At the very least they should be stripped of any legal assistance that the state provides in the event they are sued for actions taken under color of their state positions. You want the taxpayers, to pay to defend you? Then even if you don’t care who you harm, you must at least take the precaution of learning what you could be liable for.