Missouri lawmakers think modest dress is the solution to sexual harassment of interns

Lawmakers in Missouri have responded to reports of sexual harassment against their Capitol interns with, you guessed it, a dress code. The recent resignations of Missouri Speaker John Diehl (R), after it was found that he carried on an inappropriate relationship with a student intern, and Sen. Paul LeVota (D), after he was accused of sexual harassing an intern and retaliating when she avoided his advances, have left the Missouri legislature scrambling to find a solution to a culture that has been described as “very anything goes.”

And where there’s a will, there’s a way to deflect responsibility. Rep. Bill Kidd, also a Republican (surprise), and several other lawmakers suggested that a new “conservative” dress code mandate for interns be included in updates to the internship program policies to help legislators avoid being tempted into misconduct. According to Rep. Nick King (R), “We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females” because “removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”

And here I was, naive enough to think that the votes of the people of Missouri and their salaries should be enough to keep them focused. As US Senator Claire McCaskill asked in a letter opposing the proposal, “Is your recommendation meant to suggest that the ability of adult men and women who have been elected to govern the state of Missouri to control themselves is contingent on the attire of the teenagers and young adults working in their offices?”

Obviously, there are serious issues with the both the motive and actual effectiveness of this plan. Middle schoolers can see through the blatant logical flaws in placing the burden on women, girls, and their closets as weapons against sexual harassment and assault. As someone who has seen their fair share of government buildings and interns, I can’t imagine that the dress code at any government building, let alone that of the Missouri State Capitol, has ever allowed for attire that fell outside the lines of respectability and professionalism. However, given the history of sexual harassment and assault, attire is rarely ever a strong factor in whether or not someone violates another person’s consent boundaries or abuses their position of authority.

Not only does implementing a dress code reveal an ignorance of the realities of sexual harassment, it requires potential victims to bear the responsibility of keeping themselves safe from people with significantly more financial, social, and political power over them. But it remains unfortunately true that when confronting the misconduct of men in power, some people are willing to do anything other than address male privilege, rape culture, assumed access to women’s bodies, and — in this case — gross abuse of power over student interns.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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