Remember last March when Bob Mercer said sexual misconduct is not unusual in Pierre?
Former legislator Angie Buhl O’Donnell and current lobbyist Samantha Spawn both made news yesterday by opening up about sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact in our Legislature.
In a public Facebook post, Buhl O’Donnell recounts offensive sexual comments made to her in 2016 by then-House Majority Leader Brian Gosch. She says Gosch made lewd references to her body, then, later that same evening, asked for a hug.
Buhl O’Donnell says she heard stories of Gosch treating other women inappropriately in Pierre:
Later that day, I was discussing the incident with other female colleagues, who had their own Brian Gosch harassment stories to share. We had all had individually felt like we should just handle it on our own, but hearing similar stories from other women made it clear this was a pattern, and not likely to stop if we remained silent. We were also keenly aware that we worked in a building with lots of young women serving as interns; if we as experienced legislators were struggling with this, how would an intern feel?
The legislative structure generally relies on self-policing, so we made the decision to speak with the presiding officers of both the House and the Senate. They were both understanding and not at all dismissive of us, and were appropriately disgusted (though I can’t say either of them looked surprised). They told us it would be dealt with, and that if we wanted to file a formal complaint we just had to say the word. We also had indications that Representative Gosch was not planning to run for re-election, so I told myself that handling it internally was fine. I didn’t want to make a fuss [Angie Buhl O’Donnell, Facebook post, 2017.10.13].
Gosch tells the press that Buhl O’Donnell started it:
Gosch told Argus Leader Media that Buhl O’Donnell initiated the conversation about being hit in the breasts and he joked that she was hit in the breasts more than once.
“I am sorry if she was offended by that,” he said in a statement. “It was not intended to harass her or make her feel uncomfortable” [Dana Ferguson, “Former State Lawmaker, Lobbyist Tell of Sexual Harassment, Rape in Pierre,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2017.10.13].
Just three hours after Buhl O’Donnell posted her story, NARAL/Pro-Choice lobbyist Samantha Spawn posted to Facebook and confirmed to Ferguson that she was raped last March by (Ferguson’s words) “another person who works in the Capitol.” Spawn writes on Facebook that, the day after the rape, her attacker cornered her outside a Capitol committee room and asked her if she was going to report the crime. She didn’t, out of fear that such a report would hurt her personal reputation and her ability to do her job in Pierre.
Like Buhl O’Donnell, Spawn says bad male behavior is common in the Legislature:
Other unwanted contact from male legislators and lobbyists was also common in the Capitol, she said. Spawn often received unwanted hugs, kisses on her cheeks and had men touch her waist [Ferguson, 2017.10.13].
Why speak up now? Are movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s transgressions finally going to provoke a widespread revolt against piggish male behavior that Donald Trump’s comments about his grope entitlement last year and Mathew Wollmann’s resignation from the Legislature after a full term of boinking interns couldn’t? I yield the floor to Ms. Buhl O’Donnell for the final word:
I’m bringing this to light not in search of personal gain or out of political motives: neither of us are in the legislature at the moment, and I’m 2 months away from finishing my nursing degree and moving with my family to Minnesota. I’m just tired of feeling like it’s a thing I should keep quiet out of deference to my harasser, because that allows the behavior to continue. I’m sharing my story in the hopes that people will remember that this isn’t something that happens only in “other places,” this happens right here in South Dakota. That it doesn’t matter how much “planning” someone does or how much of a feminist you are – you can’t predict how you will react in the moment, and those reactions are simply a survival mechanism and do not define us. I’m telling my story because it is the only way to call out the culture in Pierre and elsewhere that shrugs off this behavior. I’m saying this how in the hope that other women will feel empowered to speak up, until harassment is no longer a thing that “just happens” [Angie Buhl O’Donnell, Facebook post, 2017.10.13].