When President Trump said Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against a Supreme Court nominee was illegitimate because she hadn’t reported it at the time, I was reminded of an experience from the campaign trail.
At a forum put on by local high school students, all eight candidates on stage — including myself, the only woman — were asked what Congress could do to advance the #MeToo movement and help combat sexual violence. Two of my male opponents, both Republicans, got up separately and spoke directly to the girls in the room: If you don’t want to be raped, they said, you shouldn’t drink alcohol or look down at your cell phone while you’re walking.
I was shocked — along with most of the audience. This is the wrong message to send our young people. Shortly thereafter, another male opponent — a Democrat — answered that we simply need to teach women how to report sexual assault better.
It was maddening. And yet, I heard this sentiment over and over again on the campaign trail.
A recent study showed 75 percent of employees don’t report harassment for fear of disbelief, blame or retaliation. According to the Department of Justice, of the estimated 320,000 rapes and sexual assaults in 2016, less than a quarter were reported to police.
There are many reasons women don’t “speak up” — from worrying about their job security, to fearing retaliation or stigma. But another major reason is that many women rightly fear that their speaking up will be for naught — and that they’ll be ridiculed and dismissed while their abuser is afforded the benefit of the doubt. The disparity between the treatment of Ford and Kavanaugh was plain for all to see on live television.
Unfortunately, teaching women how to report better will do nothing to change the framework through which our society approaches sexual assault. It’s hardly a solution to report a crime to a system that isn’t designed to protect you.
Many victims say the process of reporting is akin to a second assault. We need a system that is victim-centered and trauma-informed. That doesn’t re-traumatize the victim in the process of reporting. That believes women instead of blaming them. We need first responders and doctors to be trained, and when a woman goes through the intrusion of getting a rape kit done, it should actually be tested.
Many men mean well, but their solutions often don’t appreciate this important context. Recently, I was listening to an interview with a prominent male politician — again, a Democrat — who said that our party needs to focus on things that actually matter to people’s lives, like access to health care and infrastructure, and stop focusing on divisive identity politics, like reproductive health care, or immigration. This is another sentiment I’ve heard again and again.
But here’s the thing: As a woman, reproductive health care is my health care. For a new immigrant, fixing our immigration system is what determines whether they have access to services. And for someone who’s black, fixing our criminal justice system can literally be a matter of life and death.
During my campaign, some well-meaning supporters advised me not to talk about how all my senior campaign staff were women, because it shouldn’t matter and was “borderline sexist” — even though campaign work, and politics more broadly, is a male-dominated field.
Allies are important. We’re never going to reach gender parity without the support of men and women alike. But there is a difference between an ally and a champion. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t actually judge someone on how they’ll vote in the abstract. Rather, we should focus on their priorities — what they are willing to sacrifice to get something else passed. If a public servant doesn’t think reproductive rights are a core part of what the Democratic Party should be fighting for, you better believe they won’t fight for them at the negotiating table.
That’s why we need a more diverse set of leaders, with a more diverse set of perspectives and lived experiences. It changes policy and produces better outcomes. We’ve seen what it looks like when a room full of men try to legislate on women’s health. Political science research shows that female legislators are more likely to introduce legislation that specifically benefits women and addresses family issues. And on average, female legislators pass twice as many bills as male legislators.
Men are not bad. But they are significantly over-represented in our government, and therefore their interests and issues are prioritized. So if we want to make government work better, here’s a simple solution: Start by electing more women at all levels — from city council to Congress.
Sara Jacobs is the former CEO of an education nonprofit. She ran for California’s 49th Congressional District in the primary.