A past acquaintance rape, a political candidate, a pesky reporter, a friend with a moral dilemma – these are all ingredients of my novel. And they were also the subject of a recent Ethicist column in the Sunday New York Times magazine. The letter-writer focused on one question only: “Do I Have to Tell About a Co-Worker’s Rape?”
The political candidate wasn’t the rapist (unlike in my novel) and may never have known about the assault. The intern who was raped did tell higher-up’s in the campaign, who apparently “made the problem go away.” At the time, the intern confided in this letter-writer, a campaign worker and friend, who took no action and feels “ashamed … for not saying anything at the time.” Now a reporter had begun digging into the matter; the candidate is running again. Does the letter-writer have an obligation to spill the beans?
All three of the ethicists agreed on the central point: only the person raped has the right to decide whether or not to go public. They directed the questioner to go back to that intern and let her decide.
But the experts left out another vital step. The letter-writer has an opportunity and an obligation to do something to prevent this from happening again. Here’s my advice:
Go directly to the candidate. Say, “I know this happened seven years ago and I want to ensure it can’t happen again.” Urge the candidate to set up clear procedures letting all campaign workers, paid and unpaid, know that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated and designating at least two senior campaign staff to report to should it occur, with assurances that swift, fair and effective action will follow.
Policies matter, but they matter most if they come from the top and come with consequences. The policy needs to be repeated verbally on numerous occasions and be given in writing to everyone associated with the job, paid or unpaid. The campaign should identify a third, neutral party who is expert at conducting investigations – so that people know ahead of time the problem won’t be handed off to political operatives with their own agenda.
Rape isn’t just unethical – it’s criminal. Any political campaign worth supporting had better oppose it not just in theory but in practice.