The Expulsion of Rep. Steve Lebsock: These Are Not Your Hunting Grounds, Anymore.
On March 2, 2018, Colorado Representative Steve Lebsock was expelled from the Colorado Assembly for acts of sexual harassment against five women. Writing this sentence gives me goosebumps: it actually happened, someone was held accountable!
Rep. Lebsock harassed numerous women. Five came forward describing various lewd and offensive acts. For example, one woman described Rep. Lebsock reaching out, unprompted, and unbuttoning her shirt while they stood at a public function. Another woman, a lobbyist, described him asking her to have sex. She responded it was “off the table” and he answered, “It doesn’t have to be on the table.” And of course, his colleague Rep. Faith Winter came forward to explain that she said “No,” not once, not twice, five times, while Rep. Lebsock grabbed her arm. There are several other examples contained in the report developed by an outside investigator.
First, why do these statements and actions matter? What makes them offensive? While I know why these words and actions are unacceptable and must be punished, I understand it is not apparent to everyone. In a society that repeatedly depicts women as unreliable and hysterical while men are “lovable scoundrels,” it is painfully easy to see how these questions persist. Rep. Lebsock’s actions are unacceptable because they reflect, and perpetuate, the idea that the world—whether professional, personal, social, public, or private—is an infinite hunting ground for men’s sexual desires and demonstrations of power. He behaved the way he did because he believed he was entitled to do so. This sense of entitlement creates devastatingly uneven playing fields. Men are entitled to behave the way they want to while women, those who feel threatened and cornered by that behavior, are either not believed or belittled for expressing their reactions to that behavior. Notice that I did not use the word offended. Women are not merely “offended” by sexual harassment: they are harmed and threatened by it, which brings me to my next point.
The second reason these actions are unacceptable is that they create a power differential between the harasser and the harassment victim. Once individuals like Rep. Lebsock cross that line, the victim is cornered. For proof of that merely look at the way people, both within the legislature and outside of it, reacted to Rep. Winter coming forward with her story. During a radio interview in the Fall, she stated she was being “iced out” of meetings that were important for her to properly represent her district. When a woman receives this type of treatment and speaks out, she will overwhelmingly get punished for it. In fact, Rep. Lebsock did retaliate against the women who came forward. (Unrepentant and defiant until the end he changed party affiliation minutes before the vote to expel him so the GOP would get to select his replacement. Talk about being petty!) In light of this retaliation and ostracization, one might advise women to not say anything. This isn’t a solution either. Sexual harassment is not about sex or desire; it is about power. And as long as the victim refuses to give in to the harasser, he will have a reason to increase the harassment until she relents or leaves. There is, truly, no way out once a harasser crosses the line. These statements are not a “one and done” proposition—which would not be entirely acceptable but would lack the long-term consequences. These statements create an increasingly untenable situation for the recipient which will, in the end, either have to leave or face the consequences of being a victim. Finally, regardless of outcomes, sexual harassment impacts women internally, which brings me to my third point.
When a woman is singled out as a sexual object—which is what Rep. Lebsock’s actions did to his victims—she is being told that no matter her intellectual, professional, political or social accomplishments, she can and will be reduced to a sexual commodity. In a world where self-confidence is critical to performance and advancement, this messaging is at best energy-depleting and at worst career-ending. Even if a confident, capable, and prepared woman is made a victim of sexual harassment, she will know that her accomplishments are not quite enough to make her a person—rather than a sex object—to her colleagues. The example I like to use, which works for any number of sexual harassment scenarios, including catcalling, is asking a bystander what time it is. Imagine a co-worker who, every day, asks you the time. Every day, that co-worker walks into your office and asks what time it is. Would you get annoyed? If the answer yes, you can understand at an elementary level why continually being reduced to a tiny part of what you can do is exasperating. Sexual harassment contains a fraction of that exasperation in addition to layers upon layers of victimization.
Sexual harassment continues to be pervasive because all of us are taught that the world is one vast hunting ground for men. We are told, as though it is an immutable truth, that all guys think about is sex, that their most natural interaction with women is sexual, that they are “by nature” “misbehaved,” and that “boys will be boys.” Every magazine cover reinforces that idea by telling women all the ways they can make themselves more attractive to the “hunting men.” When Rep. Lebsock was expelled, I was standing in line to board a flight to Denver. As I saw the votes come in, I audibly gasped, and shivers ran through my body—just like shivers are running through my body as I write this—because for once, for once, women were not only being vindicated, they were defending themselves with the same power men have used to hurt them for centuries. Rep. Winter, Rep. Herod, and other women stood up, fought back, and exercised what historically has been a male privilege: they had the power and they kicked him out. My spirit is cheering; my heart is swelling with pride. I wasn’t there, in that chamber, but it certainly feels like we were all there. It felt like a turning point. The prey is now on the hunt, and we’re not taking it anymore.
Gentlemen, these are not your hunting grounds anymore. We’re coming for you.