On Capitol Hill, as in other work environs, not all sexual misconduct is created equal. Some predators are more seductive than others. Some are more aggressive. Some let it all hang out, while others operate sub-rosa. Some are chillingly systematic in their hunting. Some present (and may actually fancy) themselves as caring mentors imparting invaluable wisdom and nurturing close relationships with promising young up-and-comers.
For women looking for help navigating this tricky terrain, Congress’s existing processes are beyond worthless—more concerned with shielding the perps than aiding their targets. Regardless of age, rank, or party, Hill women are essentially left to their own devices when it comes to handling the wide assortment of men behaving badly—a particularly difficult feat in a culture of omerta that would impress Tony Soprano.
Accordingly, many of the women have developed their own informal warning networks, support systems, and even terminology for some of the squirrellier business that transpires. No one is suggesting that all, or even most, Hill men are pigs. There are, however, multiple categories of creeps and creepiness—many blurry and overlapping—that female aides, interns, and even members quickly learn to look out for. Unsurprisingly, few on the Hill are eager to hold forth on this subject. Of the half-dozen women who agreed to talk at length for this piece, none wanted to go on the record. Others would only confirm or elaborate on details, also anonymously. The recounting of specific episodes was particularly fraught. Even incidents that don’t name names are too easily recognizable in a subculture as insular as the Hill, they noted. And nobody wants to risk violating the loyalty code and getting cast out. Even so, from my current and past reporting, a rough (though by no means complete) taxonomy of sorts emerged.
The old-school flirts. One of the more harmless, less scary categories, these lawmakers tend to be up there in age and often hail from the honey-dripping South. They like to hug and pat arms and hold hands and dole out hello kisses to favored staff and colleagues. They think nothing of gushing about how fetching or charming a staffer is or calling women by patronizing monikers, but they’re unlikely to get aggressively vulgar, much less turn predatory. Even when they do wax bawdy, most women shrug it off as a generational thing: dirty old men being dirty old men.
The home-turf hunter. This breed of predator proudly thumbs his nose at the vulgar-but-wise aphorism “Don’t shit where you eat,” trolling his own staff for sexual thrills. Most recently, Representative John Conyers has been accused by multiple women of perpetrating a diverse, grotesque, and impressively blatant array of skeeziness: luring female staffers to his hotel room under false pretenses, repeatedly propositioning staffers, pawing their persons, asking them to touch his … member—or, barring that, to locate a more accommodating lass who would.
Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who sometimes fall into this category. Take Kenny West, the disgraced chief of staff for House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who—until he was ousted in 2015—was famously creepy toward the women in his office: openly ogling them, touching them, talking about fellow staffers’ love lives. His go-to move was insisting that women hold his hand so he could pray with them.
The premeditated, serial predator. This is a rare, but especially dark subset of the home-turf hunter. These members are known for hiring pretty, young, low-level staffers with an eye toward who will make fun playmates. Once on the team, the unwitting newbie is the proverbial fish in a barrel, a captive target of her boss’s sexual attentions. Then, once the member has had his fun (or, alternatively, tires of being rebuffed), the staffer is sent to work in some other lawmaker’s office—preferably a pal of the predator’s who can be relied upon for discretion. The process is not subtle, or at least not subtle enough to avoid the Hill’s gossip mill and earn such members a particularly icky reputation. There is even a name for the staffers they target then hand off: “pass throughs” (or, less delicately, “hand me downs”).
Those who fish in other people’s ponds. Some members and staffers, by contrast, are scrupulous about keeping relations with their own officemates simple, instead targeting aides and interns from other offices. Some are looking for an actual relationship and can get unnerving in their pursuit, with unwanted calls and texts and pop-ins to places where staffers socialize; others content themselves with inappropriate comments and the occasional grope.
The after-hours lechers. Some members manage to keep it together during the regular workday, but once the hallways start to empty out—woof. In such cases, it often falls to senior staff to police the situation, ensuring, for instance, that interns or young aides don’t wind up working alone in the office late at night. Certainly they avoid dispatching junior staffers to deliver materials to the member’s home by themselves. In a House Administration Committee hearing last month, Representative Barbara Comstock shared the story of a former Hill aide who went to drop off work at a lawmaker’s home, only to have him show up at the door wearing nothing but a towel—which he then dropped.
The dangerous drinkers. Unsurprisingly, alcohol brings out the worst in many, many lawmakers. Otherwise charming, even avuncular grandpa types come unspooled when the booze start flowing. (Small wonder that members who frequent the bars where staff hang out are often viewed with caution.) This is, to be sure, a dynamic common to most fields, but on the Hill it plays out in unusual ways. For instance: late-night votes. It is one of the worst kept secrets in Congress that, when votes run super late, some members have a tendency to while away the hours by retiring to their offices or to nearby establishments and tossing back a few. And then a few more. When at last the vote is called, they stumble back to the floor well lubricated, which can make for awkward encounters with female staffers who happen to cross their path out of view of the C-SPAN cameras.
Elevator creeps. Something about those cramped old elevators in the Capitol apparently drives certain lawmakers wild. Senator Claire McCaskill recently recounted how, as an intern in the 1970s, she learned not to get caught alone in an elevator with a male member. Similar stories still circulate today. Never has “take the stairs” seemed like sounder advice.
Virtual stalkers. Off-color texts, odd-hour calls, inappropriate emails—there are so many convenient ways for harassers to make their targets uncomfortable from varying distances. One woman shared with me the story of how, several years back, a staffer from another office used to regularly send her harassing messages on his Blackberry while they were both attending the same committee hearings. More or less trapped, she had to sit there, in silence, reading the guy’s creepy messages while the hearing rolled on and on and on.
Raunchy talkers. This is something of a catch-all category encompassing everyone from serious predators to clueless jokers. And to clarify, no one is griping about off-color jokes among colleagues with well-established, respectful relationships. (Hill women are not fragile, hothouse flowers. Many give as good as they get when it comes to bawdy humor.) But male aides openly discussing how they’d like to “Harvey Weinstein” a female colleague isn’t considered especially hilarious. Neither did a female lawmaker appreciate it recently when a male colleague who saw her at the House gym loudly joked to another male colleague that the way to “keep [her] in line is to grab her by the ponytail and, in the other hand, have a piece of candy.” (Does that even make sense?) According to someone familiar with the incident, the female member was “rendered speechless.”
Figuring out which members to keep at arms length and under what circumstances is an integral part of Hill women’s early education. “When women do find themselves in a bind, they blame themselves rather than get angry,” says former Representative Mary Bono, who has of late been discussing the harassment she experienced during her time in Congress. (For instance, a male colleague once approached her on the House floor to say he’d been thinking about her while he was showering.)
Most of the women I spoke with expressed optimism that the newer generations of members and aides seem less inclined to accept this as “just the way things are.” Even so, they cautioned not to expect a congressional housecleaning of the sort currently sweeping the media and Hollywood. “There is complete and utter abject fear that if you get labeled as somebody who’s talked, people are going to go after you,” said an aide to Representative Jackie Speier, who has been leading the charge for Congress to address its harassment problem.
Worse still, there’s growing fear of backlash that could make the climate even more difficult for women. Specifically, multiple aides voiced concern that, if members get too nervous, they will quietly stop hiring women and embrace some variation of the Pence Rule—so named after Vice President Mike Pence’s policy of never being in the room alone with a woman who is not his wife. “It’s always a possibility,” said the Speier staffer. “And it’s really unfortunate, when, honestly, this could all be addressed by people being adults and treating one another like that. It’s not that freaking complicated.”
No, it’s really not.