Sexual Harassment Isn't a Party Issue, It's a Power Issue

Or, how the Iowa Democratic Party promoted a state senator accused of harassment

This month, Iowa Senate Democrats elected State Senator Nate Boulton as one of five assistant minority leaders.

In 2018, three women accused Boulton of sexual harassment. And he didn’t deny it. Not really. He didn’t step down, but Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen stripped him of his committee assignments. And he laid low. In 2020, he ran for reelection and didn’t face a primary challenge.

When I asked why, no one would go on the record. If you are going to promote someone who has been accused of harassment at least have the courage to publicly say why. Hiding isn’t going to make the problem go away. If there is something to defend, say it. Otherwise, you are just proving you know what you did is indefensible. And this silence — this refusal to acknowledge or change, the whispers, the throwing women under the bus for your political agenda — this is rape culture.

When I asked, what I heard instead were whispered excuses. 

Well, it wasn’t that bad.

Hasn’t he suffered enough?

But he’s good at his job.

It’s handwashing — an “out, damned spot” of sexual harassment. 

I spoke with one person who thought about challenging Boulton. That person didn’t want to be named but said there was no interest in the party or among the locally powerful AFL-CIO in considering anyone else. I spoke with Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, who denied discouraging anyone from running. He also said he had no idea how anyone in the Labor caucus would have considered a primary challenge, because there simply wasn’t one.

But he did admit that Boulton had a lot of Labor support due to his father, Randy Boulton, a lifetime union worker and Steelworkers official. And said that Boulton has been a good advocate in the Senate. And there is another thing: Boulton’s former political director, Julianne Frosolone, is the political director for the Iowa AFL-CIO.

I’m not sure if people think women are dumb or if they just don’t care.

After all, if 2020 has proven one thing about political candidates or even our culture, it’s that we’d rather use women as props than actually vote for them or promote the policies and changes that would make the world better. This isn’t a partisan issue. Misogyny, just like racism, has always been a both sides issue. Because they are issues of power.

When I spoke to multiple people inside the Democratic Party, the response felt like a universal shoulder shrug. What can we do? He won the election. What can we do? He’s a good senator.

As if doing one’s job is penance for the abuse of others. It’s the Al Franken rule. The Jeffrey Toobin rule. We forgive a man his sins, as long as he does his job well enough. 

He didn’t rub his erection on me, people proclaim. It’s the only time that excuse works. We never hear anyone say, “Well, he didn’t burn my house down, so he must be innocent!”

Boulton’s reemergence is a cheap redemption won not because he’s done anything to change, but because of the Midwestern rule of silence: if you don’t talk about it, it will go away.

Lost in this silence are the victims. Not once did I hear anyone talk about how it must feel for the thousands of women across the state who are survivors of assault to see, once again, a party that promises something better be just as bad as every other option.

During my conversations about how Boulton got promoted, more than one person said, “It happens.” 

It being harassment. As if a powerful man occasionally rubbing his erection on you in a bar is the cost of living in this world.

No one ever talks about the contribution of women. The job they do. The jobs they could have done. What is lost when they drop out of politics or move out of state because men in power can’t stop rubbing their dicks on them in bars or calling staffers late at night or creeping in the DMs of young women. And when the women say something, when they call out this abusive behavior, nothing happens. Or all they hear are excuses. What can we do? Who else would do the job? He won his election.

The reality is, if your party won’t support candidates who don’t harass women, and won’t actively recruit people who know what consent means, don’t act like you are the victim when your party is ruled by more of the same white men — just a little younger and with better hair cuts. Don’t be surprised when you lose elections. If all you have to choose from are sexual harassers and people with the personalities of a La-Z-Boy recliner, that’s a problem you caused. It’s a problem that’s not partisan. It’s one of power.

After I reached out, Boulton himself sent me an email, which described how he’s focusing on being a good husband and father, emphasizing he won the election and was ready to get back to work for Iowans. It’s not worth printing the words. We’ve heard them all before. 

When I asked about apologies or making amends, I heard nothing in return. The truth is, he doesn’t have to do anything. Because no one, not voters, not the party, not the party leadership, not special interest groups, no one is interested in change.

It’s worth noting: the one person in the party who did something to rectify this, Sen. Janet Petersen, is no longer the Senate minority leader. And the moment she was gone, Boulton was back in.

But we have to focus on other policies.

As if women’s bodies and sexual harassment are an inconvenient roadblock to tax cuts.

We live in a culture where women’s problems are seen as niche issues — something women bring on themselves — and not as systemic problems that need to be grappled with. In a PBS interview, author of Rage Becomes Her Soraya Chemaly noted, “And so, as opposed to having the woman’s testimony be considered valid, or even giving her the benefit of the doubt of the innocence of not being a liar, the culture in general attributes lying to women who come forward.”

More than once, I heard, “What should we do about it?”

So, here is a start: first, stop promoting people who are serial sexual harassers. It’s truly not that hard. Second, continue to strengthen and enforce ethics rules at the Capitol and end the culture of silence around harassment. Men especially need to speak up. Additionally, extend sexual harassment protections to independent contractors. Third, start recruiting people who believe in things besides elections and will fight for change. Stop worrying about winning elections. I have to laugh at the number of people who, in justifying the redemption of Boulton, pointed out how Democrats need to win. Newsflash: you are losing. Protecting and promoting harassers will cost you more elections in the long run. Boulton winning is more about the wielding of power than his actual political acumen.

For too long, power has bought the myth of the mediocre man with money, and the cost is the bodies and careers of women.

I’m tired of excuses. I am tired of politics that rely on the votes of women, but treat these same women as inconveniences when they stand up for their bodily autonomy and their desire not to be harassed.

Thank you for reading! Please consider becoming a subscriber.