The first email is innocuous, curtly professional even. Rep. Kevin Engler sent his fellow House members a draft of a new intern policy—much needed after two lawmakers resigned over allegations of sexual harassment toward interns—and asked for their input at 5 p.m. Monday.
Those three words, sent by Rep. Bill Kidd via iPhone: “Intern dress code.”
Immediate reactions to Engler’s original email, reviewed by SLM, show Kidd’s suggestion that interns’ hemlines, not lawmakers’ predatory actions, are the true culprit was as controversial to local politicians as it would become to the people who elected them.
“Maybe burqas for the women?” responded Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, apparently with sarcasm, adding, “The dress code isn’t the problem. Harassing interns is.”
“We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” Rep. Nick King replies. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”
“We’re not really going to require interns to dress so we’re less distracted, are we?” asks Rep. Bill Otto. “All we need is a code of ethics and a penalty provision.”
By late Tuesday, the conversation had moved beyond a House email chain and into the national press. House Speaker Todd Richardson squashed the idea of an intern dress code, saying in a statement that the House “did not recommend, and the House will not be implementing, changes to the dress code as the House already has in place a code that applies to all members, staff and interns equally.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill sent letters to Reps. Kidd and King criticizing the recommendation for dress code changes.
“Such a recommendation reeks of a desire to avoid holding fully accountable those who would prey upon young women and men seeking to begin honorable careers in public service,” McCaskill wrote.
It’s no wonder Missouri’s political scene is up in arms over how much skin interns are showing. After ex-House Speaker John Diehl apologized for his sexually-charged relationship with a college intern, Missouri Senator Paul LeVota resigned after two interns accused him of sexual harassment.
In her letter to the representatives who supported an intern dress code, McCaskill asks a question that cuts to the heart of the issue: “Is your recommendation meant to suggest that if an intern wears suggestive clothing, she or he will share partial responsibility for any potential sexual harassment or assault?”
It’s a good question, and it got us thinking about other questions we’d like to ask the lawmakers looking for ways to prevent their peers (or themselves) from harassing interns.
Here are our five unanswered questions for Missouri legislators who think a new dress code will stop sexual harassment:
What year is it?
All this talk about stopping women from drawing sexual advances with their plunging necklines is starting to sound like a bad pitch for a Mad Men episode. Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis Democrat, responded to the email conversation about intern policies by reminding lawmakers that “this is not the 1950s.”
“Harassment in the workplace is illegal and a woman’s attire does not give anyone the right to harass, regardless if they feel distracted,” Newman wrote to lawmakers. “We are supposed to be the adults and need to act like it, even away from home.”
Exactly how long must a skirt be to prevent an elected official from creating a hostile work environment by making unwanted sexual advances?
Fingertip-length? Knee-length? To the floor? Working women nationwide would love to know the answer to this one. A recent survey in Cosmopolitan says that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 report being sexually harassed at work, and another 16 percent who didn’t report being harassed said they had experienced sexually explicit or sexist remarks in the office.
Does the dress code apply to text messages?
It’s hard to imagine how rules about dress slacks would stop sexual harassment between a Missouri legislator and an intern when they’re not in the same room, building, city, or country. After all, the sexually charged text exchanges between a 19-year-old intern and former House Speaker John Diehl often occurred when Diehl was at home or traveling abroad, according to screenshots released by the Kansas City Star. Because the only way a dress code could have stopped this sultry exchange is if rules dictated what interns wear to bed:
Diehl: Laying in bed looking at your pic :)
Intern: Mmmm why can’t I be there :)
D: I was thinking abut what you said you wear to bed
I: Nothing (Winky emoticon)
How should an intern dress to stop a legislator from retaliating against her for turning him down for sex?
Sexual harassment goes beyond a flirty text message. It also includes retaliating against someone for rebuffing sexual advances. That’s what college senior Alissa Hembree says happened to her while interning for Missouri Sen. Paul LeVota. Hembree told the Kansas City Star that LeVota repeatedly texted and asked her about sex until she cut 22 inches off her hair and stopped wearing dresses and heels to “seem more invisible” to him—an allegation LeVota denies.
Changing her appearance didn’t stop the harassment, Hembree alleges. A Senate-financed report said “when she reported the solicitations to LeVota’s chief of staff, she believed she ‘was subject to retaliation’ and basically snubbed in the office,” according to the Star.
What happens when the dress code doesn’t work?
Imagine if the Missouri General Assembly were to enact a strict dress code requiring its interns to be as buttoned-up as possible and then another case of legislator-on-intern harassment breaks. What will happen then? Mandatory beekeeper uniforms for interns? Or maybe then we'll recognize that the harassers, not the harassment victims, are the ones to blame here?
If not, Feminist blog Jezebel offers another suggestion: “Presumably when [the dress code] doesn’t work, the House will consider a dress code for lawmakers that involves a sturdy chastity belt and the blinders that carriage horses wear.”