Video: Including Sexual Assault and Violence Within the Context of Public Health

Susan Wood, Fatima Goss Graves, Mary Ellsberg and Emilie Coen

Sexual harassment and violence affect people both physically and mentally, stresses Fatima Goss Graves, JD, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, and addressing these problems advances public health. Goss Graves described the legal, policy, and cultural work necessary to create workplaces free of harassment and violence in the 2018 Edward N. Brandt, Jr. Memorial Lecture in Women’s Health held at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) on December 7. A video of the event can be accessed here.

“It’s important to include sexual assault and violence within the context of public health,” Goss Graves said in her talk, which was co-sponsored by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center College of Public Health, the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, and the GW Public Health Student’s Association. The lecture is an annual event in honor of Brandt, whose achievements include serving as the acting U.S. Surgeon General of the United States from 1981 to 1982, and as the United States Assistant Secretary for Health from 1981 to 1984.  He established the first Public Health Service Task Force on Women's Health and oversaw the U.S. response to the first cases of what were eventually known as AIDS while serving as assistant secretary, and continued to advance public health at the University of Oklahoma following his government service.

Goss Graves thanked Milken Institute SPH Dean Lynn R. Goldman for pointing out that workplace assault has garnered new attention in the past year and that it disproportionately affects women, particularly women of color. She described her work with colleagues to establish the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund (housed at the National Women’s Law Center), which connects those who experience sexual misconduct – including assault, harassment, abuse, and related retaliation in the workplace or in trying to advance their careers – with legal and public relations assistance. The Fund has received more than 4300 calls since its inception in January 2018, she reported.

In industries with high levels of sexual violence and harassment, workers can be forced to choose between having an income and feeling safety, Goss Graves said.

To date, healthcare is an area where issues of sexual violence and harassment have been the subject of very little attention, Goss Graves said. A discussion with two members of the GW community, moderated by Jacobs Institute executive director Susan Wood, expanded the conversation on potential roles for members of the public health field in advancing safe workplaces for all. Mary Ellsberg, the founding director of the George Washington University Global Women's Institute, commented that public health can play an important role by offering healthcare provider trainings, evaluating research, and promoting methods aimed at prevention.

Provider training is crucial, agreed Emilie Coen, a DrPH student at the Milken Institute SPH. Informed by her work in sexual assault advocacy, she stressed that the experience of reporting an assault shouldn’t be as traumatic as the assault itself.

In her speech, Goss Graves also pointed out that schools need training and support on appropriate handling of Title IX complaints, and she said she was alarmed by the proposed rules recently released by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. If the rules go into effect, they would encourage and even require schools to be complicit in sexual harassment and violence, she warned.

The above photo shows (left to right) Susan Wood, Fatima Goss Graves, Mary Ellsberg and Emilie Coen.