This week, the House of Representatives voted on a bill that would alter the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. Along with other new rules and procedures for curbing sexual harassment, the bill also bans sexual relationships between lawmakers and their staffers. It does not, however, prohibit relationships between people who are equal colleagues or who aren’t in a chain of command with each other (so a House member could date a House member, or a chief of staff for one rep could have a relationship with another rep’s chief of staff). This is the bill that also forces legislators to pay back the Treasury Department for funds used to settle sexual harassment claims in Congress and makes the procedures for reporting harassment so much easier. All around, this is a very good bill and a welcome change.
But banning employees from relationships, even bosses and their subordinates, sends the wrong message about the underlying problems behind sexual harassment, no matter how well intentioned.
And the bill really does seem well intentioned. In addition to banning relationships between a lawmaker and their staffer, a separate resolution would also require House members to establish their own policies regarding harassment and relationships in their offices, so it’s possible that some members will choose to go zero tolerance on any fraternization between people at all.
According to the Washington Post, although the bill doesn’t ban relationships between lawmakers and people they don’t supervise, it does prohibit “unwelcome sexual advances or conduct” toward colleagues and House employees but does not ban sexual relationships between lawmakers and staffers they do not supervise. Basically, it’s aimed at preventing power discrepancies from influencing these interactions, which is obviously important.
There have been a slew of resignations in both chambers of Congress in the past few months and some of them involved congressional staffers. Rep. Patrick Meehan is another accused Congress member. He won’t be running for election after a staffer said he “lashed out at her” when she rejected him, according to the Huffington Post. Banning relationships between bosses and employees should just be considered a bad idea no matter what industry they work in.
Companies that don’t already have policies about fraternization or sexual harassment will very likely look to Congress as an example when drafting their own rules. These new policies highlight one of the biggest problems with the response to #MeToo allegations. Women and men “fraternizing” isn’t the problem in the workplace — the problem is the assumption on one person’s behalf that they are somehow entitled to another person’s body or space or time, even after the other person rebuffs them or doesn’t (or can’t) give consent that constitutes harassment, all of which contributes to a hostile work environment.
Consensual flirting and shooting your shot in the copy room is not what women are talking about ending.
It’s amazing that we have to baby men who refuse to understand verbal and non-verbal consent by banning all of it. Next time you hear a man complain about the rules, remind him why we can’t have nice things at work anymore. No one wanted to end flirting at work. What, like all we want to do is work? These rules are a necessarily last resort after a long history of women feeling perpetually unsafe and uncomfortable because men can’t understand how to treat them like human beings without it being written out to the letter.
On one hand, banning relationships means that the supervisor or colleague will definitely know that they can’t try to send a dirty email or touch someone’s leg without permission. Having policies in place in which people have to disclose their relationships and are clear about what that should look like day to day might be more effective, according to the Society for Human Resources & Management.
A recent survey by the organization found that younger workers are more open to relationships at work and tend to understand the dangers of favoritism and not bringing their personal lives into the professional space. There are a lot of people who might be prone to banging their co-worker whether there’s a policy or not. There are consequences to not having rules in place at all, of course. Most companies, according to SHRM, have “no fraternization” policies to protect against sexual harassment claims, but there are other issues that can come up, like someone having to switch departments or just not getting along with their ex-partner or other people in the office.
Still, there are more effective ways to change a sexist or predatory culture from forming in the office.
Holding regular trainings so that everyone knows what harassment is and how to report it is a first step, but efforts have to be way more comprehensive than that. Traditional trainings aren’t that effective, but teaching people how to intervene and promoting more women actually are, according to the New York Times. There should also be — and it’s good that the House bill includes these kinds of changes — common sense policies and procedures for reporting harassment. These procedures should protect the victim instead of alienating them. Actual investigations and repercussions for serial harassers and abusers at work might be a better deterrent than bans on dating or making out at the holiday party.
It’s not a perfect science and every workplace should be revamping their policies to end sexual harassment. But banning men and women from interacting with each other shouldn’t be the only thing. It might even exacerbate the problem.