By Daniel Horwitz:
The past week has been a terrible one for victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence. Two high profile scandals—both involving elected officials—suggest that any number of Tennessee’s politicians have no qualms about leveraging their positions of power to harass, abuse and intimidate women. The first scandal involves allegations that State Representative Jeremy Durham—a member of the Republican leadership until just a few days ago—sexually harassed legislative staff and interns repeatedly and without hesitation. The second involves allegations that Nashville Metro Councilmember Loniel Greene—who resigned his seat last night effective immediately—used his position as a public official to intimidate a victim of domestic violence. According to a recorded phone call, Greene threatened a woman who had reported a domestic violence incident, stating: “Bitch, I’m smarter than you. You try to play the system, motherfucker I am the system.” After stating that “she’s going to have to be shut down,” Councilman Greene then “work[ed] on” the alleged victim in an attempt to silence her.
The response to these allegations from other elected officials was tepid at best. For example, in an utterly tone-deaf statement that placed responsibility for Representative Durham’s alleged sexual harassment squarely on the shoulders of those who were believed to have been the victims of it, House Speaker Beth Harwell announced that: “I have instructed the Director of the Internship program that interns are not to attend receptions or events related to the legislature, and they are not to give their cell phone numbers to members.” The response to Councilman Greene’s scandal was similarly listless. Prior to his resignation, exactly two out of forty total Metro Councilmembers—Councilman Bob Mendes and Councilman Jeremy Elrod—condemned the allegations, while the Mayor suggested that Councilman Greene should consider resigning because the allegations could “becom[e] a distraction.”
“The YWCA of Nashville & Middle Tennessee is appalled at news accounts of a current domestic violence case involving a newly elected Metro Councilman. How is it that persons in positions of power in Nashville are able to misuse that power to silence victims? How is it that processes, put in place to protect victims, are not followed? These patriarchal behaviors raise serious questions about whether we are able to trust the systems set up to protect victims.
As advocates, we are constantly asked ‘why women do not report abuse; why women will not prosecute; why women cannot just leave.’ This recent high profile incident provides a perfect example of why victims don’t, won’t, and can’t. We want Nashville to be a place where all of our leaders work to make Nashville safer for victims of domestic violence, not more dangerous. ”
Added Sara Beth Myers of AWAKE (Advocates for Women’s and Kids’ Equality):
“Tennesseans should be confident in our laws that protect victims of harassment both in the civil and criminal context. The offices of our state and local elected officials should be paragons of professionalism and transparency, setting an example for every other workplace in Tennessee. In a state in which women are so underrepresented in our legislature, lawmakers and policymakers should be especially deliberate about interacting with their female colleagues both legally and respectfully. The past week’s events revealed a situation in our government that we should all deem unacceptable.”
The presumption of innocence is obviously of paramount importance and should not be discounted. As such, pending the outcome of formal legal proceedings against Representative Durham and former Councilman Greene, those who have resisted making public condemnations are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Elected officials’ collective disregard for the alleged victims of these incidents, however, is far more difficult to explain. Protecting victims of harassment and domestic violence and protecting the presumption of innocence are not incompatible concepts. A legal system that fails to do both at once holds little value.
To be absolutely clear at a time when too many elected officials haven’t been: victims are not responsible for being sexually harassed, beaten, or intimidated. Sexual harassment is illegal. Domestic violence is illegal. Intimidating a victim of domestic violence is illegal. Retaliating against a victim who reports being abused is illegal. All such acts are despicable. None should ever be tolerated.
The law protects victims of harassment, violence and abuse. If you have been victimized, resources are available to help you. If you’re in danger, you can reach the YWCA’s 24-hour crisis and information line at (615) 242-1199 or toll free 1-800-334-4628. The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands has free lawyers available to help those who have been victims of domestic violence, including providing free divorce services and helping victims obtain orders of protection. The District Attorney’s Office has a Victim Witness Services Division that is exclusively dedicated to helping victims navigate the legal system. The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence makes a multitude of free resources available to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Many employment lawyers, although they are not free, will take sexual harassment cases on a contingency basis. All of these resources exist to help empower victims and stop the cycle of abuse.
It is also important to shed light on the many existing policy shortcomings that need fixing. Although late in coming, legislative leaders have already acknowledged that the General Assembly’s current sexual harassment policy needs to be overhauled, because “staffers and others who are regularly at the Capitol do not feel comfortable coming forward.” Sadly, the same is often true of the criminal justice system. In many instances, for example, the names of victims of domestic and sexual violence are made publicly accessible on arrest warrants, which discourages a significant number of victims from reporting. There is also a pending dispute in the Tennessee Supreme Court over whether victims’ private, personal information becomes a public record under Tennessee law once their records have been turned over to law enforcement. On behalf of several domestic and sexual violence prevention advocates who participated in the case as amici curiae, the author has argued that it does not, but the Tennessee Supreme Court will have the final say. Additionally, the legislature’s failure to adapt to modern forms of harassment has left a void in victims’ protection against abuses such as non-consensual pornography—otherwise known as “revenge porn”—and harassment via electronic media, such as text messages and facebook.
These shortcomings certainly need to be corrected. While that happens, however, don’t wait. The law protects victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, even when elected officials do not. If you need help, help is available.
Questions about this article? Email Daniel Horwitz at email@example.com.
 In the interest of full disclosure, the author is a member of the YWCA’s Board of Directors.