Opinions/Editorials (OpEd) by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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Times Haven't Changed That Much: A Commentary on Wilkins' 'I am a victim' Defense.

There’s a disturbing theme in the press coverage following the decision of Delegate S. Vance Wilkins to resign his position as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Those writing the stories and the headlines seem to be buying the “I was a victim of the changing times” line that Wilkins is doling out; or to put it another way, the “you just can’t teach an old dog new tricks” excuse for his behavior.

As a person who has been teaching seminars on sexual harassment since 1978 and working closely with the leadership and other members of the General Assembly since 1986, I can say with some authority that Wilkins is not a victim caught unwittingly in shifting social sands. It is a fact that the atmosphere of the Assembly has changed since I first arrived in Richmond in the mid-1980’s. However, at no time in the more than fifteen years that I have been working with the Assembly, do I think that Wilkins or any other member of the Assembly can fairly say that it was considered acceptable to make unwanted sexual advances toward a woman lobbyist, legislative employee or constituent. Moreover, no member of the Assembly elected or reelected since Senator Bob Packwood was sent home to Oregon in 1995 (after the Senate Ethics Committee found he had sexually harassed at least 17 women "who were effectively powerless to protest in the face of his position as a United States senator") can plead ignorance, as Wilkins has tried to, of the basic definition of sexual harassment or the potential abuse of power in directing any such behavior toward women constituents, lobbyists or employees.

The allegations made against Wilkins have nothing to do with being “flirty” with women or too “gregarious” or “friendly” as his resignation statement suggests They are not about being a bit too quick to hug someone who may not want to be hugged. The allegations made against Wilkins are about abuse of power. They are about “touching” a vulnerable young woman “inappropriately” and “pinning her against office furniture on different occasions” and telling her that if she complained that “no one would believe her if she accused the House speaker of misconduct.” They are not “he said she said” allegations; they involve inappropriate behavior that at least one other man said he witnessed. They are allegations about a person who thought his power as Speaker made him invulnerable.

The Republicans have been working overtime in the days since the allegations against Wilkins were revealed to convince the public that such behavior is not the norm and that such conduct toward women will not be tolerated. Their efforts have been hampered by statements by some of the more senior members of the Republican House Caucus that have suggested that the young woman who made the allegations against Wilkins is a “gold digger” or that she “asked for it.” These comments and Wilkins’ resignation statement suggest that he and some of the longer serving Republican members of the House may be suffering from a social disability when it comes to understanding right from wrong in their behavior toward women.

So here’s my suggestion to the Republican leadership: if you want to send a real message that times have, in fact, changed, elect a woman to serve as the next Speaker of the House.

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