By Erin Woo
Vanessa Tyson encouraged survivors of sexual violence to speak up about their experiences at a Tuesday symposium on the #MeToo movement. The symposium was her first public appearance since releasing a statement last week accusing Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexually assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC).
“When women and survivors start comparing notes — that’s when the lightbulb goes off,” Tyson said of the #MeToo movement, which she described as a “cognitive liberation of sexual assault survivors.”
Tyson researches the policies and politics of sexual violence as a 2018-19 fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS). On Tuesday, she called sexual violence an “epidemic” and a “public health issue” in conversation with CASBS fellow Jennifer Freyd — whom Tyson called her “closest friend” in the program — and former Stanford Law dean Paul Brest.
“It’s killing us — slowly, surely, but it’s killing us,” Tyson said. “It’s taking everything out of ourselves just to function in this world and to make it a better place.”
Last Wednesday, Tyson published a statement alleging that an originally consensual encounter with Fairfax at the DNC devolved into sexual assault when the politician forced her to perform oral sex on him while she cried and gagged.
A second woman, Meredith Watson, came forward on Friday with allegations that Fairfax raped her in what she called a “premeditated and aggressive” attack while they were both students at Duke University in 2000.
Fairfax has forcefully denied both women’s allegations, labeling Watson’s statement “demonstrably false.” In a statement released on Friday, he called for “a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations.”
According to NBC News, Fairfax said “f*ck that bitch” as he tried to discredit Tyson’s allegations in a private meeting Friday night.
In Tuesday’s symposium, Freyd explained the ways in which perpetrators seek to discredit their accusers using the acronym DARVO: deny, attack and reverse victim and offender.
Tyson also emphasized the importance of believing all women, not only women from “socioeconomically privileged” groups such as white women or highly educated women.
“None of us are disposable or dispensable,” Tyson said.
Education has played a role in discussions of both Tyson’s allegations and those of Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto University psychology professor who in September accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while they were in high school in the 1980s.
Tyson discussed watching Ford testify before the Senate as an act of “empathetic absorption … understanding the weight that someone else carries because maybe in our lives at some point, one place or another, we’ve carried that weight too.”
“As she shook, we shook with her,” Tyson said. “As she told her story, we felt the pain she so visibly demonstrated.”
Tyson’s and Watson’s allegations against Fairfax come as scandal engulfs all three of Virginia’s top executive officials, all Democrats. Both Governor Ralph Northam and state attorney general Mark Herring have been accused of racism after acknowledging they wore blackface while students in the 1980s. After Northam and Fairfax, Herring is third in the line of succession for governor.
The Enough is Enough Voter Project, a Super PAC founded by Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber to end the careers of politicians accused of sexual misconduct, has already circulated petitions calling for Fairfax to resign and is working with Right Way Forward Virginia to remove both Fairfax and Northam from office. The PAC is hoping that an African American woman replaces Fairfax as lieutenant governor, Dauber told The Daily.
As of Tuesday afternoon, a GoFundMe for Tyson’s legal and security fees has raised nearly $30,000.
Meanwhile, 36 of the 38 2018-19 CASBS fellows signed a statement in support of Tyson, calling her a “thoughtful scholar of integrity and compassion.”
“We are incredibly proud to call Vanessa Tyson a colleague,” the statement reads.
Tyson’s allegations arrive as universities across the country respond to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposed changes to Title IX policies, which critics say would weaken universities’ ability to respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus.
Freyd called on institutions to prioritize gathering data on instances of sexual violence and educating the campus on how to respond. Tyson discussed the difficulties arising when professors, as mandatory reporters, “take any control [victims] have left out of their hands” by being forced to report their students’ experiences of sexual assault.
“How do you create an environment where abuses of power aren’t tolerated?” Tyson asked.
According to Dauber, who called Stanford “one of the least friendly schools to survivors that there is,” the University still has a long way to go.
“All those presentations on the scholarship were great, but the sad fact is that Stanford as an institution is not implementing or taking the advice or the suggestions being given by the scholars in large part,” Dauber said. “We’re living in an environment here with zero accountability with respect to sexual misconduct.”
The University received 221 reports of sexual misconduct, stalking and relationship violence in the 2017-18 academic year, according to its Title IX/Sexual Harassment Annual Report. Of those 221 reports, 57 resulted in Title IX investigations, one of which led to a hearing.
Stanford history professor Estelle Freedman, who is studying sexual violence as a 2018-19 CASBS fellow alongside Tyson and Freed, told The Daily that the University is constantly working to improve its policies.
“There’s a lot in the process of change,” Freedman said. “We’re constantly reevaluating the policies, taking surveys, trying to understand the information that Jennifer Freyd was talking about — that is, transparency — more so in previous years.”
Although Tyson said that responsibility for fixing the problem of sexual violence should not fall to its victims, she stressed the importance of speaking up as a survivor.
“Sometimes,” Tyson said, “you have to lead by example, no matter how hard it is.”
This report has been updated to include statistics on sex offenses at Stanford and professor Estelle Freedman’s comment.
Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.