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State House proves to be home to culture of sexual misconduct 

Sexual assault accusations arise within the Massachusetts State Legislature. PHOTO BY JENNA MANTO/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Allegations of sexual misconduct have driven conversation in recent weeks, with the accused ranging from high-ranking government officials to household Hollywood names.

The Massachusetts State House, both male-dominated and composed of different hierarchies, is a breeding ground for this type of harassment and abuse, according to Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.

Although Farley-Bouvier said she is unfamiliar with stories personally, conversations she has had with other staff and lobbyists revealed that issues of this nature have arisen.

“They have great concerns about changing the culture here in the State House,” she said.

A dozen women who have worked for the State House in some capacity labeled the space as one where abuse is free to reign, according to an Oct. 27 column published in The Boston Globe. All anonymous, the victims described situations where male colleagues attempted to take advantage of them — including demands for sex and pressing up against them.

In response to the allegations made in the article, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a press statement he is “infuriated and deeply disturbed.”

The same day the report detailing decades of misconduct was released, the House passed an order — proposed by DeLeo — calling for a review of current sexual harassment policies by an independent counsel. By March, those appointed will be responsible for filing a report listing any recommendations for updates to these policies.

As a chair of the Women’s Caucus Sexual Assault Working Group, Farley-Bouvier said while she appreciates the stance taken against such behavior, it will be a waiting game of sorts to see if policies adequately aimed at addressing these issues are placed in effect once the investigation is completed.

Presently, the sexual assault policy is extremely limited and has gone without review for a long time, Farley-Bouvier said. Education and training around this policy — currently nonexistent in the House — are necessary, in addition to the completion of a climate survey.

“If we can change the climate of sexism in state government, then we will go a long way in changing the climate around sexual harassment,” she said.

Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, said the allegations of sexual misconduct popping up across the country, including Beacon Hill, don’t surprise her at all. In her past 10 years in this field, the issue has remained prevalent.

“We have a very widespread culture,” she said. “[Men] feel entitled to it, to whatever they want. Whatever the narrative they have in their head … they feel entitled to it. And so they take it without consent.”

In male-dominated fields like politics, it’s common to see young women being derailed from pursuing original ambitions as a result of an uninvited encounter with a male colleague, Bruno said.

Stephanie DeCandia, director of programs for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, said in workplace environments where prevention and response policies are not made explicitly clear, sexual harassment of some form often occurs on a regular basis.

A lack of well-established repercussions typically enables those in authoritative positions, such as legislators, to act without fear of any damage to their career, DeCandia said. Survivors of abuse find it difficult to come forward for a number of reasons, primarily rooted in privacy and safety concerns, regardless of whether it was a standalone incident or an ongoing experience.

“It’s easy to imagine that there may be some sort of retaliation, even if it’s not on an official level,” she said. “Just in terms of people talking about it, finding out about it, making judgements, taking sides and having to continue to go to that workplace — it can feel very hostile and very difficult. “

Mitchell Garabedian, principal attorney for his firm specializing in the defense of sexual abuse victims — and part of the Globe’s Spotlight investigation into priest sexual assaults in 2002 — said by individuals sharing their experiences, others become emboldened to do the same.

“There is strength in numbers in coming forward, and the strength is it defeats the deniability of the claims in so many instances,” he said. “By coming forward in numbers, it is very difficult for the abuser to deny the existence of the abuse. It is very difficult for the harasser to deny the existence of the harassment.”

The increasing number of allegations coming out not only allows for victims to heal, Garabedian said, but leads to “the safety and protection of victims, of individuals who could be victimized in the future.”

Several Boston residents recounted experiences of sexual harassment or abuse, and said significant changes are needed to alter the culture described on Beacon Hill.

Adrien Rose, 52, of Allston, said when she entered the workforce as a young woman, she repeatedly faced harassment from her superiors, and expressed without proper sanctions and laws, progress will be difficult to achieve.

“Every job I had, my boss would come onto me and many times if I did not go out with him, he would fire me,” she said. “We still live in a patriarchal world and men are still in control. It’s been okay for too long, so it’s very hard to change overnight.”

Daniela Stumm, 23, of Roxbury, said she knows several women who have suffered abuse at the hands of men before in the workplace, and expressed encouragement for more supportive communities for survivors.

“A lot of girls that have experiences like that unfortunately do not speak up because they are ashamed, which doesn’t let them recover from their negative experience,” she said. “It’s definitely a problem not only in the United States, but everywhere.”

Scott Scarlett Kruger, 25, of Brighton, said while they are grateful more people are speaking out against the culture of sexual harassment, they think the focus is too heteronormative. For them, the perpetrator has almost always been exclusively female.

“My last job [was] at an adult learning center,” they said. “One of the students would spend hours on end poorly attempting at flirting with me, and it was kind of relentless and got in the way of my work. When one of my superiors found out, I got reprimanded. The fact that the situation was read that I was the perpetrator or that I was being distracted … was frustrating.”

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