A new report says sexual misconduct is ‘everywhere’ and ‘everything’ in N.J. politics

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

An advocacy group has issued a report saying sexual harassment and misconduct is “everywhere” in New Jersey politics.

The N.J. Coalition Against Sexual Assault on Thursday released the results of its survey on sexual harassment and misconduct in Garden State politics. It revealed that nearly two-thirds of the more than 500 respondents — 62 percent — believe that sexual harassment is prevalent in state politics; 26 percent believe it is “extremely prevalent.” 

NJCASA Executive Director Patricia Teffenhart says the report shows why state leaders must stop excusing bad behavior.

“It’s clear that time for action is now, and we’re calling on everyone in the highest levels of government and leadership to take this issue seriously so that we can include true equity, safety, and access for everyone involved in government and politics,” she said.

The survey comes following media reports and legislative hearings documenting high-profile cases of harassment and assault. Earlier this year, a task force focusing on rooting out harassment, assault and misconduct from politics began its work.

The majority of respondents — 57 percent — indicated they have experienced harassment during their time working in state politics. Of 10 surveyed occupations, respondents indicated they’ve experienced sexual misconduct most often from elected officials. Most people in a workplace setting reported harassment by peers. Most indicated that they were harassed at events outside of work that they were expected to attend as part of their job.

Those who experienced harassment told a friend, family member or colleague but did not report incidents. Most feared retaliation or said they didn’t think reporting would help. When asked what outcome those harmed expected, some either wanted an apology or the person who committed the offense fired.

The overarching takeaway from the report, according to Teffenhart, is that misogyny and sexual harassment is still rampant in state government and politics.

Teffenhart says for most of her colleagues in the political arena, the stories of harassment are nothing new. Many, upon seeing such stories in media reports, she said, nodded in affirmation as knowing others who have had similar experiences.

Some of the open-ended responses to the survey were included in the 44-page report. One respondent said, “The biggest problem is that they all think they’re one of the good ones. They’re not one of the good ones: they’re just one of the ones. They think they’re heroes because they don’t hit women or verbally abuse them, but we need to raise the bar.”

Another wrote, “The worst part of reporting was the confidentiality agreement … I’m still terrified. Even filling out this survey is terrifying.”

“It seems as if with the greater volume of disclosures, the issue is taken more seriously and, to the best of our knowledge, there’s never been a statewide report that captures the lived experiences of so many people in one place,” the respondent added. “We’re hoping this is really the opportunity to enact meaningful, sustainable change.”

The coalition is pushing for a culture change under the hashtag “smash the patriarchy.” It is calling for rigorous education and training on the dynamics of sexual harassment within state politics in addition to a nonpartisan system to report sexual misconduct.

Teffenhart acknowledges that the issue is a “giant” one that’s “woven into the very fabric of government and politics in New Jersey,” but says her organization is not alone in wanting change.

There are also signs of hope that change is moving forward. For example, she said, Gov. Phil Murphy committed to strengthening policies for those in state government. Plus the Democratic state party and Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Jack Ciattarelli have committed to take some form of accountability and responsibility on the issue.

“Change is happening,” Teffenhart added. “It is slow, but there does seem to be a slow reckoning that business as usual cannot continue.”

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If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you can call the 24-hour N.J. Coalition Against Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-601-7200 or contact your local sexual violence program. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

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