- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Ever hear of "pluralistic ignorance"? Well, that's what happens when otherwise responsible people go along to get along as the group engages in stupid stuff even though they all know that what they are doing is dead wrong.

Think spring break, when college students throw caution and courtesy to the wind and go on drunken binges trashing everything in sight, including each other. They reason they can get away with their behavior because everybody else is doing it. Or think of the lecherous men who created a sinister climate of sexual harassment of women in the Capitol corridors of Virginia. These "boys will be boys" were allowed to creep and crawl all over women because of a perverse sexist culture perpetuated by the "pluralistic ignorance" of men, says Patrick Lemmon, co-founder and co-director of Men Can Stop Rape.

Even the "good ol' boys" who didn't participate in or condone the behavior of their General Assembly colleagues went along with it to "fit in" or, at the very least, not to flunk out. Unfortunately, so too did far too many women, victimized or not.

A "culture of silence," as Mr. Lemmon calls it, is not golden.

Republican S. Vance Wilkins Jr., 65, was forced to step down from his powerful post as House speaker after the distasteful disclosure that he paid $100,000 to a 26-year-old woman not to reveal her charges that he groped her and pinned her against furniture in the office of his former Amherst construction company.

However, this sexual-harassment scandal and its outcome portends a fortuitous moment in Richmond.

"It's a big shake-up for a lot of people in the Virginia legislature, and they have an opportunity now to say it's not right and it's something we will not tolerate," Mr. Lemmon said.

Not only was this young woman vindicated against those who cast antiquated accusations on her claims, she gave license to others to come forward. Now, it seems that women working within the statehouse enclave maybe be spared a similar fate.

This was not an isolated incident. This one brave young woman, Jennifer L. Thompson, who had the self-respect and determination to take a stand against her predator despite his power, should be commended for rejecting the tacit acceptance of this long-standing abuse. So too must the men in the General Assembly, mainly freshman representatives who were beholden to the venerable Republican politician, for their decidedly swift action against this machismo mentality that kept female legislators, lobbyists and aides in fear for their livelihoods.

For his part, while Mr. Vance still owes Virginians a full explanation of his actions, he eventually acknowledged that "times have changed, the rules have changed, and what was accepted in the era in which I was raised is strictly off-limits today. I didn't change with the times, and if I offended anyone I am truly sorry."

Mr. Lemmon pointed out that a system based on seniority such as the General Assembly often sets the stage for sexual harassment because "the people who have the most authority are the least accustomed to interacting in a mixed-gender context." If Mr. Vance sincerely wants to make amends, he will lead the charge to change the archaic male-dominated culture.

It was most disheartening to read initial reports in which the Old Guard made such dismissive and chauvinistic statements as "I take these kinds of complaints with a grain of salt," only to have to retract them once the floodgates opened. Or, "I just wish [the accusations] would go away." However, what was equally disturbing was the number of women who refused to name their predators and kept silent about being abused because to speak out was, in effect, to sign their own pink slips.

These silent sufferers must come to understand that they cannot afford to be enablers. Speaking of enablers, male members of the state legislature so easily established a pattern of making sexual advances against women under the unwritten rule that "what goes on in Richmond stays in Richmond." They expected that all male and female would comply rather than complain.

Mr. Lemmon whose group works to prevent harassment, battering and rape of women by teaching teens and young men to be strong without being violent said it is not hard to create a collective culture in which you can excuse anything, and he sympathizes with the women who find themselves in a difficult situation.

Some state politicians may bemoan the departure of Mr. Vance, who worked 24 long and hard years to steward a historical sea change on the political landscape as Republicans came to power in Virginia. But they should also see another sea change with his downfall: a new day in which women will not be devalued but be treated with equity and respect.

Which political party gains power or stays in power is really not the important issue here. Whether the General Assembly will adopt a no-tolerance stance toward sexual harassment is.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine who spoke of a serious problem in Richmond after privately listening to women's stories must be diligent in introducing and passing a strong sexual-harassment policy that covers lawmakers, lobbyists and employees. Virginia must, like other state legislatures, incorporate consciousness-raising classes, like those conducted by Men Can Stop Rape, into their orientation sessions, particularly for those statesmen of "a different time." And, a legal vehicle must be implemented in which women can feel safe to file complaints without fear of retaliation.

Still, it is imperative and incumbent on each individual to speak out when he or she experiences or witnesses what is wrong. Women must name their perpetrators. Men must call out their counterparts so they'll be real clear that such behavior is unacceptable.

Otherwise, we will never be rid of such "pluralistic ignorance."

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