Pa. Rep. Zabel’s resignation highlights need for systemic change in Harrisburg

We need reparative and restorative justice instead of just punitive justice

Originally published in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star on March 13, 2023

We are heartened to hear that Mike Zabel has resigned from his position as state representative. His resignation is necessary at this moment for many reasons, including that we have no other way to continue challenging the patriarchal culture in Pennsylvania politics—and most other spheres of life—that makes sexual harassment a common experience.  

But we fear that his resignation, like those of other men in politics who have harassed or abused women, will do little to change the systematic harassment of women that plays too large a role in the politics of this state. 

So, we want to take this moment to think about how to replace the repetitive cycle of far belated discovery of the bad things done by a political leader, followed by public condemnation, followed by a resignation if the harasser has a sense of shame or electoral defeat if they do not.   

Before addressing that, we want to note something important about sexual harassment. While the majority of sexual harassment cases involve men harassing women, sexual harassment is a broader problem that is not just perpetrated by men and that does not just affect women.

Men and non-binary people are sometime the subject of sexual harassment, and men, women, and non-binary people may perpetrate it. Sexual harassment of all kinds, however, is the result of a patriarchal understanding of sexuality under which powerful people seek to dominate those who are less powerful by coercing them into sex and submission.  

It is likely that Zabel’s resignation under pressure will be a warning to others who sexually harass people in our political world. And perhaps for a time, it will lead them to restrain themselves. But because it does not challenge the systematic nature of how people are harassed and oppressed in political life, the effect will soon fade.  

Those who sexually harass others typically don’t do it only once. They often have a pattern of bad behavior. By the time sexual harassers’ behavior comes to light quite often a number of people will have already been harmed.  

Meanwhile, without any confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously, that they will be protected after they make a complaint, and that sexual harassers will be held accountable, many of those who suffer from harassment are discouraged from reporting it.  

If the only penalty for sexual harassment, no matter of what kind, is loss of one’s job, those who are accused of sexual harassment will always deny what they have done or put forward excuses that minimize the gravity of it. Any chance for reflection, sincere apology, and reparations is lost.  

And, at the same time, if the only way to hold harassers accountable for their bad behavior is to make a public accusation that leads to a demand for resignation, many victims will be reluctant to take the first step in holding them accountable, both because they do not want to subject themselves to public comment and controversy and because they may not believe that resignation or firing is the right response to the abusive action in question. 

What is the alternative?

These are difficult issues and no one has a firm answer. The new House rules, which extend sexual harassment protection to a far broader range of people who interact with legislators is a huge step forward. And after conversations amongst our staff members and other people who have some expertise in the subject over the last few weeks, as well as consulting some recent writing on the subject (here and here), we want to suggest another approach to cases of sexual harassment that might do more to reduce their occurrence than the usual response.

We believe that it is time to create a culture and a set of institutions and practices that recognizes that sexual harassment is far too prevalent; that educates people who engage in this immoral and oppressive behavior; that strongly encourages those who are subjected to it to report it, while offering them protection and support when they do so; and that creates opportunities for the people involved, including those who may have stood idly by and allowed the behavior to continue, to meet individually or together in a supervised setting.

The goal of such meetings would be, first, to provide support to those who have suffered sexual harassment; second to call sexual harassers to account by those who suffered or witnessed it; and third, to give those who have victimized others an opportunity to reflect, apologize, and take other actions to repair the damage they have done.  

In other words, in this area we need what we progressives call for in the criminal justice sphere— reparative and restorative justice instead of just punitive justice.  

That does not mean that punitive justice is never an appropriate response to sexual harassment. People certainly engage in harassing actions that deserve condemnation and punishment. And public officials should be held to the highest possible standards.  

But as we progressives have recognized in other spheres, it is important to think about alternatives to punishment and public condemnation as a response to illegal and immoral actions.

Because our goal is to reduce the prevalence of crime and damaged lives, we have called for alternative responses to crime that don’t just punish individuals but offer them a chance to learn from their mistakes and repair the damage they have done while addressing the structural and cultural, as well as personal, sources of bad behavior.  

The institutions we need to move in this direction include well-funded and staffed offices in both the executive and legislative branches that conduct trainings and seminars for elected and non-elected officials. These offices should be empowered both to investigate and call people to account for their actions.

They would also be charged with supporting and protecting those who report it; holding perpetrators of sexual harassment responsible for their actions; and devising, with the participation and approval of those they’ve harassed, plans for reparation.

In accordance with that plan, the offices would decide with the survivors of sexual harassment when, if, and under what circumstances public statements should be made by the parties involved—which may involve neither party or only the abusive party.

They would also recommend stronger actions when warranted to the governor and the ethics committees in each house of the General Assembly. Options include official censure by their peers in the legislature, loss of pay, loss of privileges and responsibilities, and the loss of their job for those in the executive branch and, for legislators, expulsion from the House and Senate. 

We offer these tentative thoughts with the hope that it will lead to discussion about how we can create a political world that encourages those who are harassed and those who witness it to come forward more readily—and one in which those who sexually harass, in addition to suffering the appropriate penalty for their actions, would recognize their immoral behavior and make reparations for it.  

Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. His work appeares frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  


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