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Column: Protect the rights of survivors

Column: Protect the rights of survivors

Kirsten Anderson

Anderson 

As an Iowa Senate Republican staff member, I endured degrading sexual harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination after speaking up. I made the decision to file a lawsuit against my employer. Filing a case after being sexually harassed at work is an incredibly difficult and personal decision – one that is scary, ostracizing, and taken only because we feel we have no other choice or power to protect ourselves or others in the same situation.

Ultimately, a jury of Iowans decided I had been sexually harassed in violation of Iowa’s laws. The road to get there was very difficult, which is why most victims of sexual harassment never come forward. If victims do come forward, they are up against a mountain of challenges, including a powerful defendant that holds the information victims need to prove their case and enforce accountability. This is to say nothing of the emotional toll of losing a career, friends and former colleagues. This system thrives on intimidation, secrecy and maintaining the status quo. Forced arbitration is a key part of this archaic and flawed system and the practice needs to end.

Forced arbitration clauses are buried in the fine print of employment paperwork which strip survivors of their basic right to file their case in a public court of law. Instead, forced arbitration cases are heard in a secret tribunal, decided by a private arbitrator selected by the abuser. Unsurprisingly, victims never win.

Fortunately, there is bipartisan legislation pending in Congress that could change that. The Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 would put a stop to the practice of forcing arbitration onto survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment if they would rather file a case in court. Passage of this bill is a fundamental first step in addressing the variety of issues which allow sexual harassment to run rampant in the workplace.

This bipartisan bill recently passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with no objection and our own Sen. Chuck Grassley, the highest-ranking Republican committee member, is a supporter.

Corporations don’t want to lose the unfettered ability to force victims into a rigged system, and are pushing an alternative bill, led by Sen. Joni Ernst, which entirely fails victims. Inexplicably, Sen. Ernst’s bill would limit the use of forced arbitration for sexual assault victims but leave the status quo for sexual harassment victims like myself. Shouldn’t victims, and not the corporations that protect predators, decide how best to pursue justice and confront their abusers? Being sexually harassed is an intensely devastating and personal experience and victims should decide how to enforce their rights.

Right now, Congress has the power to restore a victim’s right to make those decisions by passing the Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021. The focus of this debate should not be about how to whittle down the rights of victims until they are left with nothing; it should be on restoring rights, asking why so few victims come forward in the first place, and how Congress can better support survivors. Victims of sexual assault and harassment deserve a choice on how to pursue their cases and hold their harassers and abusers publicly accountable.

The time to act is now. Sen. Ernst should follow Sen. Grassley’s lead and build on her legacy of protecting and strengthening the rights of survivors.

Kirsten Anderson is the author of the upcoming book, "More Than Words: Turn #MeToo into #ISaidSomething". She won a lawsuit against the state of Iowa and the Senate Republican caucus following her firing after she complained of sexual harassment and retaliation.

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