Some Missouri state lawmakers have a controversial idea for preventing future sexual harassment cases in the legislature: Imposing a new “modest” dress code for teenage interns.
State representatives are trying to figure out how to respond to several incidences of harassment among their ranks. In July, State Sen. Paul LeVota (D) resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed two interns. And in May, House Speaker John Diehl (R) — perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in the state — stepped down after the Kansas City Star reported that he exchanged sexually explicit text messages with a 19-year-old intern.
In response, lawmakers are attempting to make changes to the current internship program to provide more oversight. And at least two state legislators — Reps. Bill Kidd (R) and Nick King (R) — have thrown their weight behind an intern dress code.
“We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” King wrote in an email to the rest of his colleagues after Kidd made the initial suggestion. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”
The idea was met with derision from Kidd and King’s Democratic colleagues, as well as roundly mocked on Twitter. Critics pointed out that changing interns’ dress codes won’t get at the fundamental issue of lawmakers potentially harassing their staff or colleagues. Plus, they argued there isn’t anything inherently distracting about interns’ bodies that should prevent their bosses from being able to go about doing their jobs.
“If my plaid jacket or the sight of a woman’s bare knee distracts you from your legislative duties, I would look for other work,” Rep. Jeremy LaFaver (D) responded.
Missouri’s legislature isn’t the first to wade into this fight. Last year, Montana lawmakers made national headlines for approving new dress code guidelines that stipulated “leggings are not considered dress pants” and women should be “sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.” Female politicians in the state objected, saying the new rules created “this ability to scrutinize women” and were “totally sexist and bizarre and unnecessary.”
The argument over gender-based dress codes has also spread to middle schools and high schools across the country, as female students push back against the assumption that the way they dress may distract their male peers from concentrating in class. Critics say this approach to dress codes reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are inherently tempting to men and that women are responsible for covering themselves up. The implicit message, then, is that it’s women’s job to change their behavior to prevent men from committing sexual crimes.
“Maybe voters should insist on a special requirement for men applying to be a Missouri lawmaker,” Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah wrote on Tuesday. “It could rule out any men who consider themselves to be lascivious, salacious and simply indecent.”