Dear Everyone: Don’t Outrun Sexual Assault Allegations

UPDATE: State Rep. Steve Lebsock unintentionally backs up our point:


Hold on. Back up. Slow down.

A story about sexual harassment in the State Capitol that broke last week is quickly turning into a weird media free-for-all with desperate attempts to advance the story to another stage without fully embracing or unpacking the fundamental issue at stake: There is a cultural and institutional problem of sexual harassment at the state legislature.

This is not a partisan problem, and it is not a new problem. For too long, the atmosphere around the state legislature has been reminiscent of a high school field trip with little accountability or even understanding of the inappropriate behavior that takes place in quiet corners. Reporter Bente Birkeland of KUNC first broke the story on Friday of harassment allegations against state Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat who is also running for State Treasurer. Much of the media focus since that story has been about Lebsock and his most-visible accuser, state Rep. Faith Winter, and on Monday the coverage started to veer into a “cover-up” story suggesting that House Speaker Cristana Duran should resign from the legislature for not doing more to address sexual assault claims in 2016.

There will be plenty of time to address Duran’s responses to these allegations and the subsequent political fallout, but it’s critical that we don’t veer off topic from the broader issue at stake. As Birkeland wrote on Friday, this story does not start and stop with allegations about one legislator:

Beyond Rep. Steve Lebsock, there are other complaints about a handful of male senators touching women’s lower backs, giving lingering hugs, making uncomfortable and unwanted comments about appearances, massaging necks, telling off-color jokes of a sexual nature and showing pornographic pictures.

Several female lobbyists said they try to avoid being alone with certain senators and go to offices in pairs or ask a male colleague to talk to them instead. None were willing to be named for this story, saying they feared going public would hurt their work at the legislature.

Another said, “It’s a well known fact across the building that people like Rep. Lebsock and a number of Senate Republicans have all behaved in a way that would never be accepted in any other conventional workplace. It crosses party lines and has been happening for generations.” [Pols emphasis]

Rep. Steve Lebsock (D-Thornton)

This story is nowhere close to even contemplating a conclusion. According to Birkeland’s reporting, numerous other lawmakers from both parties appear likely to be accused of sexual harassment encompassing several years.

Let’s repeat that one more time: According to Birkeland’s reporting, numerous other lawmakers from both parties appear likely to be accused of sexual harassment encompassing several years.

As we all wait for more information about this developing story, the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA) issued a powerful statement today calling on the media to consider the chilling effect it can have on other victims who may otherwise be prepared to come forward with their own experiences:

Sexual violence is a complicated topic to understand and crimes of sexual violence, including sexual harassment, are among the most underreported crimes in our society. Compounding the problem is that media coverage of these crimes often perpetuates stereotypes and myths, rather than providing well-written, fact-based stories. Covering sexual violence requires context — an understanding of who perpetrates these crimes, who is affected, and how sexual violence can be prevented. When the media chooses to criticize the actions of survivors and bystanders instead of focusing on the choices of perpetrators, journalists stand in the way of meaningful cultural change necessary to support survivors, hold offenders accountable, and create safer communities. [Pols emphasis]

SURVIVORS’ CHOICE MATTERS. Disregard for individuals’ choices and autonomy is at the core of sexual violence perpetration, including sexual harassment. Disregard for survivors’ choice to report, or not to report, is a shade of the same color. In a perfect world, survivors would be able to report without fearing personal and professional consequences. However, this is not a perfect world, and we know that many survivors face safety concerns, financial obstacles, custody battles, and social ostracism, amongst other considerations when reporting. Furthermore, we know that victims of workplace sexual harassment fear repercussions that make it difficult to continue at the workplace, such as lowered reputation, questioning of credibility and competency, reassignment, and even loss of their job. All this to say that reporting is a significant decision for a survivor with significant consequences to consider.

The CCASA statement goes on to say that calling for Speaker Duran’s resignation at this point “sends a dangerous message: victim choice does not matter, and the consequences that may affect the victim are not important.”

This story first broke because Rep. Winter had the courage to come forward about her experiences. Before everyone runs off in a different direction, perhaps we should come back to Winter herself:

Look, none of this is to say that Speaker Duran is free of guilt in this situation, but we’re just not there yet. Both Democratic and Republican leaders are calling for added protections against sexual harassment in the legislature, which is an important first step in solving this problem instead of just looking for someone to take out back and shoot.

It seems likely that more names are going to come out regarding a culture of harassment at the State Capitol, and it is critical that survivors of sexual assault are not discouraged from coming forward because of knee-jerk reactions from media outlets and other observers.

19 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. PseudonymousPseudonymous says:

    Fair enough, and I’ve advocated for allowing victims to decide whether to report, but I think Rep. Landgraf has a point.

    “The fact that you placed a known harasser with multiple accusations against him in a position of power over us, lobbyists and interns shows an incredible lapse of judgment,” Landgraf wrote in a letter to Duran. “You put us all at great risk.”

    No need to give the guy a chairmanship.

  2. ModeratusModeratus says:

    PATHETIC. If Speaker Duran was a Republican male you'd be calling for him to be drawn and quartered.

    Your hypocrisy is sooooo disgusting, Democrats. Everyone can see it.

    • unnamed says:

      This.  From a guy who stands 100 % with Donald "grab em by the p#$$$y" Trump.  Probably hopes Roy Moore still gets elected because "Republicans support Republicans".

    • MichaelBowmanMichaelBowman says:

      Hey Fluffnutz…here's a refresher: 

    • JohnInDenver says:

      Why are you concerned about the as yet undetermined response toward Speaker Duran? Apparently there was a process, Rep. Faith Winter was able to describe what happened, and she was willing to go along with the promises made by Rep. Lebsock, with the proviso that she did not hear of other episodes. Rep. Duran accepted such an outcome.

      Now, with others apparently complaining (and we don't know details of those episodes), Rep. Winter files a formal complaint. And there will be further process.

      If the Speaker was a male — or should we say, WHEN there are complaints about Senators and the Republican Majority Leader and other members of the leadership do nothing (or have a very informal approach leaving a Senator in place, making the [alledged] offender a committee chair, then we will see what sort of a reaction there is.

  3. This whole thing parallels the national Congressional dialog on harassment within the halls of power very closely. That discussion includes a lot of fear about needing the support of some of these colleagues for bills in the days after you make a complaint against them…

    There need to be a bunch of institutional changes in order to even come close to addressing this issue properly.

    In the meantime, I suggested in a similar post over at dKos that there is something we can do more immediately outside of the official governmental process: get the political parties to agree that they will do their own investigations, and will not provide their official endorsement or monetary support to anyone who faces credible allegations of harassment. Yes, under our system the parties are pretty much forced to accept anyone who registers, runs, and wins – but they can make official statements and redirect funding as they desire. Parties of all stripes should buy in to this very publicly and officially through their conventions or other rules-making procedures; it's time to make it acceptable and even desirable to say NO to this abuse.

  4. mamajama55mamajama55 says:

    There does need to be more of an orderly process in the Legislature for dealing with these incidents and accusations. If they model it on public schools:

    *The first time someone is accused of harassment, they get suspended while being investigated. No show up, no vote. The accused is informed of what is being alleged about him (probably a him).

    *Investigation takes however long it takes. Corroborating witnesses, video camera evidence, all of it should be brought out. It's still a confidential matter at this point.

    *Then the accused harasser gets the chance to call his own witnesses, etc. appeal it.

    *Then a decision is made in the best interests of (for schools – children) for the legislature – other legislators, and possible victims. Most likely, this will involve the accused harasser resigning his position.

    *Only then do you get to have a media circus.

    Now, maybe this process was followed, or maybe there is a similar process. But it isn't evident that there is any process at all.

    I am kind of sick and feeling somewhat betrayed myself, as I considered myself a supporter of Steve Lebsock, prior to this coming out. I also know one of the victims, and believe her story. And yes, I'm angry about it.

    I'd like to know that my legislature had an agreed-upon process for preserving victim safety and also the due process rights of the accused.

    • The realistThe realist says:

      Agree – if they don't have a clearly-defined, effective process, they need one. And the overall goals should always be protection of victims, and prevention of future abuse. Whatever system the legislature has now, it appears to ensure that the victimization can continue without consequence year after year, forcing victims and potential future victims to work in a hostile, unacceptable environment. Why should anyone – legislator, staffer, or lobbyist – be expected to just take the abuse and keep their mouths shut? Intolerable.

  5. JohnInDenver says:

    Perhaps the process should have charges and defenses heard by members of the other legislative body — preferably a process with an even number of each party, and perhaps a mutually agreed on retired legislator to be the chair and (if needed) deciding vote.

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