Why Did No One Talk About Sexual Harassment At The Debate?

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Sexual harassment in the workplace and other areas of our daily lives is an epidemic. Recent surveys have found that up to 81% of women and 43% of men report having experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.
But despite the issue's seriousness, the topic was entirely absent from both nights of the first Democratic presidential primary debate this week. This was the first opportunity for 20 of the 25 presidential hopefuls to make their pitch to American voters, but no moderator asked them about the subject.
"It's more than unfortunate — it's unacceptable," Jennifer Klein, chief strategy and policy officer of Time's Up, told Refinery29. But it follows a pattern. According to a report released by the organization earlier this week, sexual harassment never came up during more than 4,000 questions in 123 presidential primary debates from 1996 to 2016. Other issues related to gender equality, such as child care and paid family leave, were also largely ignored on both debate nights. Moderators only asked one question about equal pay, which was directed at former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. (Refinery29 reached out to NBC to ask why sexual harassment was left out, but the network did not respond by press time.)
"These are issues that affect millions of people's lives, particularly women, [and] working families across America," Klein said. "These issues also [have] bipartisan support. On the issue of sexual harassment, 81% of voters view it as a serious problem and the numbers are similar for other [gender-equality] issues. Ninety-one percent of women voters agree that Congress should enact more robust policy on pay equity. These are issues that are clearly important to families, important to voters. ... These are the questions that should be asked in the debates."
The issues also couldn't be more timely. It's been nearly two years since a societal reckoning was ignited by the investigation into Harvey Weinstein's misconduct. More than 20 women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault, misconduct, or harassment — one of them, E. Jean Carroll, as recently as a week ago. A long list of men, including CEOs, public figures, and prominent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, have stepped down from their roles due to harassment allegations. The #MeToo movement exploded beyond what founder Tarana Burke imagined more than a decade ago, helping reshape how we think of sex and power.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a survivor herself and someone who has called for a congressional investigation into the allegations against Trump, spoke up about the failure to address sexual harassment. "Millions of women and men around the world have broken their silence with #MeToo, demanding safe and dignified workplaces free from the scourge of sexual harassment," she tweeted. "Yet not one question during the debates addressed this epidemic. How quickly they’ve forgotten."
There are still 11 more primary debates to go over the course of the next year. With an historic number of women running for president, and due to the cultural moment we find ourselves in, it's imperative that candidates are asked about this issue. Some of them, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who has worked on legislation to combat sexual harassment on college campuses, in the military, and in Congress — are clearly waiting to talk about it.
The days when discussing sexual harassment was taboo are long gone. It's time our political process reflect this change.
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