In her first public appearance since accusing Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, Vanessa Tyson spoke to an audience at Stanford University about sexual consent, the #MeToo movement and recurring attempts in society to undermine the credibility of victims of sexual assault.
“This is credibility that I think we need to get away from and move away from because every woman matters, every survivor matters, regardless of her background,” Tyson said. “None of us are disposable or dispensable.”
Tyson appeared as a panelist at a symposium titled “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo” and hosted by Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where Tyson is currently a fellow researching the political discourse surrounding sexual violence.
The sold-out event, where reporters gathered in an overflow room, was planned several months before Tyson publicly came forward last week, accusing Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex during an encounter in July 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax has vehemently denied the allegation.
Tyson appeared calm and in command as she discussed issues surrounding sexual assault, but she did not address her own, widely publicized account of sexual assault. Tyson, a 42-year-old associate professor of politics at Scripps College, spoke not as the woman at the center of a scandal roiling Virginia politics, but as an academic and an advocate. While she did not detail her own experiences with sexual violence, she in several instances grouped herself in with survivors of sexual assault, which she called “an epidemic.”
“It is killing us, slowly, quickly, but it is killing us,” she said, becoming slightly emotional. “It is taking everything out of ourselves just to function in this world.”
At one point, the moderator asked Tyson and the other panelist, Jennifer Freyd, another fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, how to inspire women and girls to speak up when the justice system slaps offenders on the wrist.
“Speaking as a professor at a women’s college, sometimes you have to lead by example, no matter how hard it is,” Tyson said.
Her comment was followed by several seconds of silence as her words sank in.
Fairfax has repeatedly said his encounter with Tyson was consensual. He has called for an investigation into the allegations but fended off calls from the state Democratic Party to resign.
“Due process is at the heart of our constitutional democracy in order to get to the truth and be true to what we are as Americans. . . . Everyone deserves to be heard,” Fairfax said Sunday night in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “Even when faced with those allegations, I am still standing up for everyone’s right to be heard. But I’m also standing up for due process.”
A second accuser, Meredith Watson, on Friday accused Fairfax of a “premeditated and aggressive” sexual assault in 2000, while both were undergraduate students at Duke University. Both women have said they would be willing to testify in public hearings and would be willing to cooperate with any investigation.
Tyson’s legal team and officials at Stanford declined requests for interviews with Tyson ahead of the speaking event Tuesday night. Margaret Levi, director at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, began Tuesday night’s event by instructing the audience not to ask personal questions of any of the panelists.
“This is an academic event. It is not about a current piece of news,” Levi said.
Over the years, Tyson has spoken openly about overcoming the trauma of being molested by a relative as a young child and having to testify against him in court. Her experiences as a child prompted her to become an advocate for victims of sexual assault later on in life. While in graduate school, she was a founding member of the Survivor Speakers Bureau of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. She also started a program teaching self-esteem and self-awareness at a detention center for girls in Framingham, Mass.
At Tuesday’s symposium, Tyson recalled watching Christine Blasey Ford testify as she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assaulting her when they were in high school.
“As she shook, we shook with her. As she told her story, we felt the pain that she so visibly demonstrated,” Tyson said. She spoke about a concept she called “emphatic absorption.”
“It’s understanding the weight that someone else carries, because maybe in our lives, in some place or another, we’ve carried that weight, too,” Tyson said. “There’s a beauty in the sense that you know you’re not alone . . . We see her bravery, we see her strength, we see her vulnerability, and we recognize it and maybe it helps us see it in ourselves.”
Tyson also spoke about intersectionality, or the idea that people have interlocking identities, including gender, race, class and religion.
“All of these are vulnerabilities that may lead someone else to identify you as easy prey or as a target,” Tyson said. “You may lack the kind of credibility that comes up so often in the #MeToo movement, whether or not they choose to believe us.”
Tyson also spoke about defining and teaching consent, saying men “are more likely to perceive friendliness as sexual interest.”
“I’m not saying that intentions don’t matter, but I’m saying that outcomes matter more,” Tyson said. “I’m saying this as someone who loves giving hugs. My mom loved giving me hugs as a child, but that doesn’t mean that that gives me license to just run around hugging people against their will. My intentions may be good, but I have to respect other people and what they want. If I forget and accidentally hug you, it’s on me to apologize and try to make it right.”
In October, Tyson submitted an essay for a special #MeToo-related issue of the Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, set to be published in March. The issue was guest-edited by Nadia Brown, an associate political science professor at Purdue University who provided a draft of the essay to The Washington Post.
In the essay, titled “Understanding the Personal Impact of Sexual Violence and Assault,” Tyson wrote about the barriers victims face when it comes to reporting a sexual assault, particularly feelings of shame, along with “consequent suppressed emotions and delayed acknowledgment of the crime perpetrated against them.”
“Will people believe me? Will my friends and loved ones support me?” Tyson wrote. “If they don’t support me, will they actively turn against me for going public? Will coming forward do any good?”
She also wrote at length about her personal experiences with childhood sexual abuse, and the ways in which the lingering trauma affected her life and her advocacy work.
“During late fall of 1994, my panic attacks started,” Tyson wrote. “I willingly kissed someone for the first time, and this one small act unleashed a tidal wave of emotions, coupled with flashbacks to years of terror from my youth.”
But she was inspired hearing the stories of other women who had experienced child sexual abuse, Tyson wrote. She recalled hearing Oprah Winfrey open up about her childhood trauma. “She, too, was a black woman who had been raped before she turned 10 years old.”
Holding a status as a sexual assault survivor, Tyson wrote, creates a “unique silent identity.”
Tyson wrote that she hoped her own advocacy efforts “might help to reverse a cycle of abuse and trauma that seemed pervasive in our society.”
“My educational training meant that I could carefully articulate various experiences and dynamics to policy commissions dealing with sex offenders and child health advocates,” she wrote. “My lived experience meant that I could potentially work with other survivors, including at-risk teen girls, so they would feel better understood and less isolated in their pain.”
Phil Taylor contributed to this report.