CHICAGO — A former Miss America who is running for Illinois attorney general once said that many victims of sexual harassment believe what is said about them and "become very promiscuous," and that some young people who are called names such as "whore" or "slut" think: "That's what I want to be."
Republican Erika Harold is stressing her experience as an anti-bullying advocate as she seeks the job of Illinois' top legal officer, running campaign ads and giving speeches to students about her own painful experiences. The topic also was her platform as the 2003 Miss America, a title that she says helped pay her way through Harvard Law School.
Shortly after winning the crown in September 2002, Harold spoke at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, where she said she wanted her platform to be sexual abstinence — the platform she used to become Miss Illinois — but that pageant officials rejected it and asked her to speak about youth violence and bullying instead. She told reporters she saw a connection between the two.
"I think that if a young person is engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle, it makes them vulnerable to other risk factors, so I definitely see a tie-in there," she said, according to an article in The Washington Times .
"Many victims of sexual harassment believe what is said about them, and they become very promiscuous. When they're called a whore, when they're called a slut, they think, 'That's what I want to be,' and so they engage in a pattern of self-destruction that can be very detrimental to their lives."
Harold, then 22, also said she was harassed, bullied and called names as a high school student but that she "took the opposite approach" rather than "the route of being promiscuous" and was fortunate to have parents and a religious community that supported her.
Harold, now 38, faces Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul for the seat vacated by Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is stepping down after four terms.
Neena Chaudhry, general counsel at the National Women's Law Center, said there is no evidence that harassment causes "many" victims to become "promiscuous." She called Harold's statement "egregious" — in 2002 or today — and said it "feeds into damaging stereotypes."
"My deep concern is this is the kind of blaming and shaming that keeps young people from coming forward and reporting sexual harassment and sexual violence," she said. "I think (the comment) is egregious whenever it's uttered, and by whomever they're uttered."
Harold's campaign stood by the remarks in a statement Wednesday, saying she didn't intend to blame victims and has worked for decades to help victims of bullying and harassment. They said without a transcript it's impossible to know what question prompted her response.
"Erika was clearly referring to the labels bullies and harassers use on their victims and how it may negatively impact victims' lives. She understands firsthand what victims of sexual harassment are going through because she's lived it herself," spokesman Aaron DeGroot said. "The fact is studies show that sexual harassment can cause anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem in some victims. That's why Erika has made it her life's mission to empower young people, combat bullying and prevent sexual harassment."
A 2013 study from researchers at the Boston University School of Education found that adolescent bullies and their victims reported engaging in more casual sex and sex under the influence with other people than did students who were not involved in bullying. The authors noted that the study could not conclude that bullying was the direct cause of that behavior.