It is an act of courage when survivors of sexual violence come forward and tell what happened to them. While considering this difficult step, they often ask themselves: “Will I be taken seriously?” and “Will I be treated with compassion?”
Hopefully, the answer to each of these questions is a resounding “yes,” but sadly that is not always the case, as evidenced by some legislators’ behavior during a recent late-night debate in the Minnesota House of Representatives described by Jon Tevlin in his March 29 column, “Bill on bodily fluids merits much more than snickers.”
When Pat Maahs discovered that a co-worker, John R. Lind, was ejaculating into her coffee cup and that she had ingested his semen unknowingly, she sought recourse from the justice system. She felt violated by this unwanted contact and also feared possible health issues. Although prosecutors charged Lind with criminal sexual conduct, the case was dismissed due to a gap in the laws.
Maahs, as a constituent with a complaint, asked the Legislature for help in fixing the statutes so that others with similar situations might have a better outcome. She found champions in Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin.
Issues related to sexual violence usually receive bipartisan support at the Legislature, and since its introduction in both chambers, this particular bill has had thoughtful hearings in the House public safety and Senate Judiciary committees, led by GOP and DFL majorities, respectively.
But when Hilstrom’s bill came up for discussion on the House floor, some of her colleagues asked appropriate policy questions, while others went wildly off-track and forgot about decorum, showing Maahs — who watched from the gallery — that her act of courage wasn’t being taken seriously and wasn’t being received with compassion.
The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault is disturbed by these events, because we tell survivors that the Legislature is a place where their voices can be heard and valued, just as for any other Minnesotan who seeks a change in the law to right a wrong.
We prepare survivors to understand that it is the responsibility of every legislator to ask tough questions about the bills that come before them, particularly bills involving criminal sexual conduct, because of the serious consequences accompanying these crimes. Lawmakers have to weigh the harm the legislation is trying to fix with unintended outcomes and issues of fundamental fairness. It’s a serious job that merits a serious response.
The ugliness of the episode on the House floor won’t change our message to survivors about the Legislature as a place for positive change, because we know the vast majority of Minnesota lawmakers treat sexual violence with the gravity it deserves.
But we do hope that the reporting of this unfortunate debate by Tevlin will remind public officials that real people come to the Legislature seeking just solutions for the harms against them. Minnesotans rightfully expect a response from their government that recognizes just how difficult — and courageous — it is to share painful, intimate and embarrassing details with the goal of making something good out of a bad situation.
Jeanne Ronayne, of St. Paul, is executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.