Sex Trade on Capitol Hill

Sex Trade on Capitol HillSex Trade on Capitol Hill
The dozens of interviews that CNN conducted with both men and women also revealed that there is an unwritten list of male lawmakers notorious for inappropriate or predatory behavior. Several people simply referred to that roster as the “creep list”

Be extra careful of the male lawmakers who sleep in their offices —they can be trouble. Avoid finding yourself alone with a congressman or senator in elevators, late-night meetings or events where alcohol is flowing. And think twice before speaking out about sexual harassment from a boss —it could cost you your career.

These are a few of the unwritten rules that some female lawmakers, staff and interns say they follow on Capitol Hill, where they say harassment and coercion is pervasive on both sides of the rotunda, MJ Lee, Sunlen Serfaty, Sara Ganim and Juana Summers wrote for CNN.

There is also the “creep list” —an informal roster passed along by word-of-mouth, consisting of the male members most notorious for inappropriate behavior, ranging from making sexually suggestive comments or gestures to seeking physical relations with younger employees and interns.

CNN spoke with more than 50 lawmakers, current and former Hill aides and political veterans who have worked in congress, the majority of whom spoke anonymously to be candid and avoid potential repercussions. With few exceptions, every person said they have personally experienced sexual harassment on the Hill or know of others who have.

In an environment with “so many young women,” said one ex-house aide, the men “have no self-control.” “Amongst ourselves, we know,” a former senate staffer said of the lawmakers with the worst reputations. And sometimes, the sexual advances from members of congress or senior aides are reciprocated in the hopes of advancing one’s career —what one political veteran bluntly referred to as a “sex trade on Capitol Hill.”

These anecdotes portray a workplace where women are subjected to constant harassment —both subtle and explicit. They also highlight an antiquated reporting system that discourages some victims from speaking out, leaving many professionals on the Hill to rely instead on hushed advice from peers and mentors.

On Tuesday, a house committee will hold a hearing to examine the chamber’s sexual harassment policies, and the senate last week passed a resolution making sexual harassment training mandatory for senators, staff and interns —two clear acknowledgments of the need for reform. Both house speaker, Paul Ryan and senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, support ramping up sexual harassment training.

One female congresswoman told CNN that she has experienced sexual harassment from her male colleagues on multiple occasions over the years, but she declined to speak on the record or detail those interactions.

“Half are harassers,” she said of her male counterparts in congress, before quickly adding that that was an over-estimate —only “some are harassers,” she said.

What began as a typical workday left one woman feeling “horrified.”

  Beware of Elevators!

A former senate staffer recalled getting on the “members only” elevator —designed to let lawmakers easily reach the house and senate floors— with her boss a few years ago. Her boss introduced her to another senator in the elevator. Both senators are men and still currently in office.

When she leaned in to shake that senator’s hand, he stroked the inside of her palm “in a really gross, suggestive way” — a gesture that was completely invisible to her boss. The ex-staffer said she was rattled and “felt very yucky.” She was also shaken by how brazen the senator was to do this with his colleague standing right next to them.

The woman, who declined to be named or reveal the senator’s identity, told CNN that she avoided that lawmaker from that day on. She also never told her then-boss about it —she was embarrassed and nervous to make it an issue, she said, and simply “took it for the gross moment that it was.”

“Nothing about it felt right,” she said.

In conversations with CNN, multiple women pointed to the elevators on Capitol Hill as a place where staff and members prey on women and say they have been advised to avoid riding alone with men if possible. One woman said years after leaving her job in congress, she still feels anxious about being alone in elevators with men.

The inappropriate conduct is hardly limited to the confines of elevators.

The dozens of interviews that CNN conducted with both men and women also revealed that there is an unwritten list of male lawmakers —made up primarily of house representatives where there are many more members than the senate— notorious for inappropriate or predatory behavior. Several people simply referred to that roster as the “creep list.”

“Amongst ourselves, we know,” a former senate aide said referring to sexual harassers and their behavior. “There is a certain code amongst us, we acknowledge among each other what occurs.”

The power dynamics in Washington contribute to this problem. Most offices are staffed by early-career professionals who are trying to make a name for themselves in Washington. They also report directly to members of congress.

“A lot of it has to do with being in a place where people who have power try to exert it to get what they want,” one senate staffer said, adding that a lot of the most egregious examples happen “on the cocktail circuit” —where powerful men intermingle with younger staffers outside of the Capitol.

It’s “people using their power without any self-control,” a former house staffer said. “There are a lot of tales of these guys going out and behaving very badly with younger staffers.”

But some women tolerate the advances or even reciprocate them -- everything from flirting to getting physically intimate -- believing that it is one way to climb the ladder.

“There’s a little bit of a sex trade on Capitol Hill. If a part of getting ahead on Capitol Hill is playing ball with whatever douchebag —then whatever,” said one female political veteran who worked on Capitol Hill.

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