Within the last few months, allegations of sexual assault have been brought against many Hollywood A-listers. Most notably, more than 50 women have made allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Actor Kevin Spacey was recently accused of attempting to force himself on fellow actor Anthony Rapp, who was only 14-years-old at the time of the incident, and more recently, comedian Louis C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct after several women accused him of masturbating in front of them. Since these instances of alleged abuse have come to light, attention has been brought to how Hollywood and other institutions in the private sector foster sexual assault and how allegations are dealt with by those in power. Such parallels can be drawn between how the American government takes action when its own members are accused of sexual assault.
The U.S. government, at all levels, is no stranger to sexual assault allegations. In 1989, a Peace Corps worker accused Representative Gus Savage of forcing himself on her, yet, no action was taken by the House Ethics Committee. Three years later, eight women accused Senator Brock Adams of offenses ranging from sexual harassment to rape. However, Adams was never criminally prosecuted and continued to serve out his term though he did not run for reelection. In the same year, Robert Packwood was accused of sexual harassment and assault by 29 women. Packwood resigned before the Senate Ethics Committee recommended him for expulsion, but he was never criminally prosecuted despite keeping a written record of his sexual relations with the victims. Representative Mel Reynolds was indicted for sexual assault and criminal sexual abuse after engaging in sexual relations with a 16-year-old in 1994, yet Reynolds continued to run his campaign and was re-elected. Only after being convicted of 12 counts of sexual assault, solicitation of child pornography, and obstruction of justice did he resign. Such sexual assault allegations can be traced back to as far as the 1700s when James Henry Hammond was revealed to have sexual relations with his teenage nieces and his young slaves, including a 12-year-old girl. As a result, Hammond dropped out of the 1846 Senate race but was then later elected in 1857. So often, it appears, the government fails to adequately punish—or even punish at all—those accused of sexual abuse.
Like Hollywood, the U.S. Government has a long history of harboring individuals accused of sexual assault. As mentioned, these individuals are often left unpunished. Both arenas foster systems of immense power imbalances; young men and women wishing to make a career in Hollywood or politics are frequently unwilling to report abuses from higher-ups out of fear that their dreams may be jeopardized. “What could I do? How not to offend this man, this gatekeeper, who could anoint or destroy me?” said actress Brit Marling in an editorial for the Atlantic detailing how Harvey Weinstein tried pressuring her into showering with him.This power imbalance exists in government too. Those accused of sexual assault are often high-power politicians or judges able to pressure young interns or aids into abstaining from reporting the abuses.
Both Hollywood and the government focus intensely on what image their institutions project, which incentivizes covering up any and all unsavory truths that lie beneath the surface. Rather than weed out sexual predators and punish them, those in power attempt to brush the sexual assaults and misconduct under the rug. Since the sexual assault stories in Hollywood have come out, many have confessed to knowing of the abuses as they were happening. Director Quentin Tarantino admitted that he was aware of Weinstein’s transgressions, saying “I knew enough to do more than I did.” Likewise, Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct was a well-known fact in the comedy world. Beyond thinly-veiled jokes about C.K., none of his colleagues came forward about the abuse that was going on. American politics runs on similar grounds: it is better to save face than to out sexual predators in government.
Newly-outed sexual predators in Hollywood have received some semblance of punishment. The Weinstein Company fired Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey was dropped from ‘House of Cards,’ and the release for Louis C.K.’s film I Love You, Daddy was cancelled. Even more recently, NBC fired long-time anchor Matt Lauer after receiving a sexual harassment complaint. Such swift justice rarely occurs on a government-level. This illustrates a divide in the private and public sector, a divide especially apparent considering how complex the American political system is.
The private sector is more incentivized to drop sexual predators once their transgressions come to light out of fear of brand-damage and money loss. Additionally, the structure of the private sector—that is, production companies headed by CEOs and executive boards—is better able to remove those accused of sexual assault. When victims share their stories of harassment and assault, production companies, modeling agencies, and record labels are encouraged to drop the stars being accused. When cover-ups fail and predators are outed, companies must move on to plan B to preserve their earnings: fire the offender. Otherwise, innaction runs the risk of profit loss.
The government is not a company, obviously, so employees (in this case, politicians) are not easily fired. Take, for instance, the process for expelling senators and representatives. The Senate or House of Representatives must pass a resolution with two-thirds approval in order to expel a senator or representative. No senator has been expelled since the Civil War, and only five representatives have been expelled ever. Impeachment and removal of a Supreme Court Justice or the President is even more of an arduous process. The procedure for removing the President or a Supreme Court Justice is similar. A majority vote must first occur in the House of Representatives to pass articles of impeachment. Then, the Senate holds trial proceedings.. In order for the President or Justice to be removed from office, two-thirds of the Senate must find him or her guilty.
This isn’t necessarily a bad quality to have as it creates stability within government, but when it comes to removing a potential sexual predator from office, it is significantly ineffectual. Over thirty U.S. politicians have been accused of sexual misconduct, yet none have been expelled from office. Often times, they willingly resign or are merely censured. Others, like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and President Donald Trump, maintain their positions despite facing sexual assault accusations. Short of being arrested or voluntarily stepping down, politicians can remain in power in the face of accusations, and if those accusations are true, can continue to abuse others.
Nothing illustrates the government’s ineffectuality more than Roy Moore, the Republican candidate who ran in the Alabama special election senate race this December. Moore was accused of sexually assaulting four women, including a 14-year-old. Moore’s opponent Democrat Doug Jones triumphed in the end winning with a close 1.5 percentage point lead. In this case, the people of Alabama voted to keep an alleged sexual predator out of office, but what will occur when another candidate accused of assault runs again in another election? Will voters stop him or her from winning?
In a proportional system in which candidates are voted for via a closed list, fellow Republican politicians would no doubt be quicker to denounce Moore out of fear of the losing seats. Closed voting requires voters to vote for their preferred political party rather than candidate because the party determine who will fill each seat they win. Having a controversial figure like Moore on the list might persuade people from voting Republican out of fear of him winning a seat. In the United States, candidates run as individuals and are not selected by their party. Therefore, parties have little control over who runs for office, they aren’t necessarily held responsible for a controversial candidate running. Therefore, those in office are less incentivized to speak out against someone like Moore because the success of their political career isn’t intrinsically tied to the controversy that surrounded another’s campaign.
While Republicans could speak out against Moore, as John McCain and Mitch McConnell did, they had little power in preventing Moore’s campaign from happening. The deadline to remove Moore from the ballot had long passed. Cory Gardner of the National Republican Senatorial Committee supported expelling Moore from the Senate if he won; however, no senator has ever been successfully expelled. Considering President Trump voiced his support for Moore, it appeared unlikely that a push for expulsion would come from the executive.
After pictures surfaced of Senator Al Franken groping radio host Leeann Tweeden and he was accused of sexual misconduct by four other women, Franken agreed to undergo an ethics investigation but originally said he would not resign. Findings from the ethics committee may have resulted in the senator’s suspension or expulsion. However, Franken eventually did end up resigning on January 2nd. In his resignation speech, Franken disavowed the accusation, saying “I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator, nothing has brought dishonor on this institution," and "I am confident that the ethics committee would agree." Of course, the public will never known if the ethics committee would have found Franken innocent as Franken resigned before an impending investigation could occur.
As the conversation shifts increasingly to preventing sexual assault in the private sector with the #MeToo movement started by activist Tarana Burke to address sexual assault and harassment and the Time’s Up movement that raised a $13-million defense fund to support women taking their assaulters to court, the conversation needs to shift in the public sector as well. Celebrities wore black at the 2018 Golden Globes in support of Time’s Up and TIME magazine even made “The Silence Breakers,” those who spoke up again sexual harassment and assault, the 2017 Person on the Year. There seems to be an air of change in Hollywood—or at least an attempt at change. The federal government, however, feels the same as it ever was. The public sector must follow suit if real change is to be made in the United States. Hopefully, Congress follows Hollywood’s trend of taking action against recently-outed sexual predators as politicians accused of sexual assault cannot be relied on to willingly step down from office. Yet, the structure of governmental investigation and punishment proceedings will most likely prevent a swift and necessary justice.