Editorial: The Power of Authenticity in Fight Against Sexual Misconduct

  • Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., listens to a question during a Valley News editorial board meeting on Oct. 19, 2016 in West Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Like all members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., has lots on her plate, from committee work to constituent service to getting her message out. Now in her third term representing the 2nd Congressional District, she has proven to be competent and hard-working — if perhaps too cautious on occasion.

There is one area, however, where she is making a particularly important contribution, and that is in her advocacy of and support for victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, which may well become her signature issue.

Kuster’s work on this started before the serial depredations of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo movement, before former St. Paul’s School student Chessy Prout began taking back her life after her assault, and before the revelations of reprehensible behavior by powerful men became near-daily headlines. She has worked to address sexual assault and misconduct in the military and on college campuses, noting in a 2014 House floor speech that “by the time women graduate from college, one in five will be a victim of sexual assault.” In June 2016, she stood again on the House floor to describe the sexual assaults she had been subjected to some 40 years earlier — as a student at Dartmouth College and later as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill.

Kuster was among the first to respond to Prout’s campaign to encourage other victims of sexual violence to speak out, and Prout has joined Kuster at news conferences and panel discussions on the issue. Kuster also wrote the introduction to Prout’s upcoming memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, and Prout will be Kuster’s guest at the State of the Union address on Tuesday.

“I feel as though she helped me to tell my story,” Kuster said in an interview at the Valley News on Wednesday. “She had been so incredibly courageous telling her own story in the worst of circumstances, in a courtroom, under cross-examination. … Bless her heart, I don’t know how she ever did it.”

Perhaps most significant, Kuster founded and co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence and backed legislation, which passed unanimously, that requires sexual harassment training for all members of Congress, their staff, interns and others. “Speaker Ryan, to his credit, has made that training … mandatory,” Kuster said. However, that training is online only and not, she said, particularly effective. She is working now to introduce much-improved, interactive training.

She also helped introduce legislation to reform Congress’ horribly flawed harassment complaint process, which, among other lunacies, requires a 30-day “cooling-off period” after submitting a complaint, and she is working to end the practice that allows taxpayer dollars to be used to resolve claims of sexual harassment.

Sadly, each day brings a reminder of how much work still needs to be done. “We have yet another colleague in the headlines today,” Kuster said Wednesday, in reference to U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., who faced a sexual harassment complaint from a former aide 30 years his junior. The complaint was settled using taxpayer money, and Meehan said Thursday he will not seek re-election.

There’s reason to hope that society is at long last ready to confront the scourge of sexual misconduct, if only because it is beginning to grasp the scope of the problem. There’s also reason to hope that Kuster might play a key role in changing one of the more formidable bastions of male power, Congress, because of the authenticity of a perspective born of personal experience.