Op-Ed Column by State Senator Judy Schwank
My first job in college was working in a university demonstration garden. I had dreamed of being a horticulturist since I was 10 years old, and this was the first time I would get to work in my chosen field.
I was beyond excited when my manager, who was also my professor, called me into his office. I had so many ideas for the garden and was thrilled for an opportunity to share them.
I sat across from him. He pulled a book from his shelf and laid it on the desk.
It was full of pornographic images.
I didn’t know what to do. He paged through it as I sat there stammering for a few agonizing moments. Then he put the book away.
We never spoke of that meeting afterward and I never told anyone about it until a few years ago. It was crushing for me.
I became distrustful of this professor I had liked and admired, and my excitement about working at the garden disappeared.
I was always fearful of another “meeting” and ashamed for being so naive.
I regret not reporting him. But I believed I didn’t have options, that any complaint would be brushed away.
Almost two months ago, 20 colleagues from both sides of the aisle joined Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, in offering a proposal to prohibit non-disclosure agreements for instances of sexual harassment and assault.
Revelations in recent months of such conduct by prominent and powerful people, and of it being kept hidden for years by these secret agreements, have also revealed the discouraging fact that these are hidden openings for new victims to be made.
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve had jobs in agriculture, education and public service. I’ve dealt with instances of sexual harassment in all of them. They were so common I’ve forgotten more than I can remember.
I know I’m not in the minority on this. Most women I have talked with have had similar experiences.
I am so very encouraged by the #MeToo movement. I believe we have reached a point of no return.
Attitudes and behaviors I thought would never change in my lifetime are being swept away by the bravery and courage of women coming forward to tell their stories and say, “No more.”
This is what motivates my bill, which bans non-disclosure agreements in most cases of sexual harassment or misconduct.
As we continue to learn, this type of unacceptable behavior pervades Hollywood and government. I know it doesn’t end there. Every industry is susceptible to these incidents being committed again and again by those who have learned to work the system to remain anonymous.
I hope my bill (SB 999) would empower victims to tell their stories while knowing they have another tool to hold their perpetrators accountable: They can name them. My bill would prohibit the use of a contract or settlement to keep secret the identity of a person who allegedly has committed sexual misconduct.
We must use the momentum surrounding the #MeToo movement to change the discussion about harassment. We must change this culture that has allowed sexual harassment to flourish in our workplaces, schools and communities.
Serial predators should be on notice that the silence of their victims, whether because of intimidation or a legal agreement, will no longer be a hiding place.
The issue of sexual harassment is incredibly nuanced and deeply personal. There is no quick fix the legislature can pass to end harassment.
This is why I’m still working with the Women’s Law Project and other victim advocacy groups to ensure my bill is as effective and helpful for victims as possible.
For the first time in a long time, I am hopeful for the women and men who will follow in my footsteps. I now know that no one should accept sexual harassment as “something that happens.” I’ve known this for my entire career, but now I see what can happen when people come forward.
I have been granted a voice by the voters in Pennsylvania’s 11th senatorial district. I’m going to use it so that no other 18-year-old girl, or anyone, will feel the shame and confusion of sexual harassment at work, at school or anywhere.
We all deserve better.