Arkansas Lawmaker Speaks Up about Sexual Harassment at State Capitol

"There were a couple of incidents where grown men put their hands on me."

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Sexual harassment accusations have prompted a call for change from the nation's capitol to the Arkansas capitol.

Only a handful of state legislatures require regular anti-harassment training. The Natural State is not one of them.

"These are crimes and these are incidents that are more about power than sex," said Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff. "But people tend to focus on the sex."

Before Flowers became a well-known state representative who crafts policy, she worked in the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research as a committee secretary.

"Nobody really knew me," Flowers said. "I was just a young girl. There were often unwanted advancements that were made by people like staff, people who were elected, people who were governmental relations folks."

Interactions Rep. Flowers classifies as sexual harassment.

"They may have thought it was a light, sort of playful thing to do," she said. "I didn't."

Some became incessant, but Rep. Flowers said she handled it.

"There were a couple of incidents where grown men put their hands on me," she said. "I pushed them away. I never reported it because I knew that it would come back on me. Part of what we are trained to do as professional women is maybe address it personally and then slip it under the rug because no one wants to be the subject of that conversation. No one wants to be maligned or isolated."

Twenty years later, Rep. Flowers doesn't see much change at the state capitol.

"It happens as much as it happens in law enforcement, in corporate America," she said. "It happens on both sides, women and men. But it shouldn't happen." 

Rep. Flowers and her female colleagues in the legislature talk about sexual harassment amongst themselves, but there's never been a formal conversation with their male counterparts.

"I've never seen anything overt," said Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville. "But I see things all the time that make me certainly uncomfortable." 

Rep. Leding is calling for at least a discussion in the following weeks ahead of the legislature's orientation in a year. 

He said the topic of professionalism came up during his orientation as a freshman lawmaker but not sexual harassment. 

"Even if somebody doesn't think they need that kind of training or that it might not do any good, I can't help but think it would be productive for all of us to come together and talk about it on a regular basis," Leding said.

Rep. Flowers believes training with more accountability is a start so she can see change over the next 20 years. 

"This is a matter of changing the culture, changing the law," she said. "For anyone to confuse that and say, 'Well, we shouldn't be making it a crime to pay a compliment,' that's not what this is. I like compliments." 

Both lawmakers believe a key way to change the environment is to encourage more women to run for office. Currently, less than a fourth of the Arkansas legislature is female. 

"If it starts at the legislative level where we say report bad acts, report sexual harassment, report rape, and we put the power of law behind it, then I think more women who aren't in positions of authority or power will feel comfortable that they would be heard," Flowers said. 

The Arkansas House of Representatives employee handbook addresses harassment prevention to the extent that any kind, be it sexual, racial, etc., will not be tolerated. 

The handbook also defines what constitutes harassment and how to report it. 

Cecillea Pond-Mayo, the House's chief information officer, said their legal counsel has been working with the National Conference of State Legislatures and outside counsel for the last several weeks to assess their current policy. 

If necessary, Pond-Mayo said they may introduce changes to make it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the House. 

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