Beyond Snorkeling

A new Washington Post story on disgraced Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) shows just how aggressive, pervasive, and appalling was his conduct during his short tenure in Congress. Massa resigned last month over allegations he'd groped and tickled male staffers. The Post story makes clear that Massa behaved this way from the moment he arrived in Congress, and also that his staffers spoke up about it--yet it took more than a year for anyone in a position of authority to stop him. What's most troubling about the picture painted by the Post story is the utter failure of workplace protections for those being harassed. According to the lawyer for one of the staffers, "[This] speaks to the significant power differential that exists between members of Congress and the personnel they employ...staffers by and large are fearful of retaliation and career suicide if they file complaints or go outside of their offices to report sexual harassment."

This is certainly true. And it's something Massa took advantage of not just in Congress, but in his previous career as a senior officer in the Navy. In an earlier post ("Eric Massa's Navy Files") I interviewed several sailors who'd served under Massa and the story was the same: an overt pattern of harassment coupled with a powerful disinclination to speak out against a commanding officer for fear of committing career suicide. One sailor who did speak out--telling a senior officer, who ranked below Massa--was told to forget about pursuing a complaint: the officer himself was worried about hurting his career.

It's fitting that the House Ethics Committee is broadening its investigation to determine why Massa wasn't stopped sooner.  

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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