Sexual assault allegations leveled at Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, have upended the state’s politics and sparked difficult discussions about rape and race nationally. But in the three days since those allegations first surfaced, the very organizations that have been on the frontline of the #MeToo movement have kept their distance.
Leading sexual assault advocates say their approach has been driven, in large part, by a desire to respect the wishes of the alleged survivor. But the hesitancy of women's advocacy groups to jump into one of the central debates of the moment has begun to grate on some who wonder whether things would be different if Fairfax were not a Democrat and a rising star in the party.
“It’s messed up,” said Zerlina Maxwell, a progressive cable news pundit and former staffer on the Hillary Clinton campaign. “It is a hard thing to call for someone to resign. It is a hard thing when somebody who is beloved by the party and who is ideologically similar to you does a bad thing and faces consequences. But if we’re going to be the party that actually lives up to what we say and stand for, there have to be consequences.”
Fairfax has been adamant that the accusations are false and that the encounter in question was consensual. He has suggested that the airing of the incident was politically motivated—timed to the moment when it appeared that he could take over as Virginia’s governor should the current one, Ralph Northam, resign due to scandal of his own.
But on Wednesday, his accuser, Scripps professor and Stanford University fellow Vanessa Tyson, went on the record with a detailed account of how Fairfax allegedly forced her to perform oral sex on him at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The incident started with consensual kissing, Tyson said, until “Mr. Fairfax put his hand behind my neck and forcefully pushed my head towards his crotch. . . Utterly shocked and terrified, I tried to move my head away, but could not because his hand was holding down my neck and he was much stronger than me.”
But more prominent institutions, like the Democratic National Committee, NARAL, EMILY’s List and the Women’s March, have either avoided the issue or engaged cautiously. A staffer at EMILY’s List said the organization has weighed in on some sexual assault allegations, like those against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, because the people involved were in a position to affect women’s abortion rights, which is their central policy concern. Otherwise, they try to keep their focus only on electing Democratic women.
The DNC pointed The Daily Beast to chairman Tom Perez’s comments on MSNBC Wednesday morning, which he made before Tyson released her statement. “I believe she is entitled to due process,” Perez said. “We need to always take these allegations seriously. I’ve said this whenever this issue has come up. We must accord respect to an accuser and we must accord due process to the accused.”
Amanda Thayer, a representatives for NARAL, a pro-choice advocacy group, said Thursday that the group found the allegations “deeply disturbing” and were “watching it very closely.”
The Women’s March did not return request for comment.
The approach stands in contrast to how many of these groups have handed issues of sexual assault in politics in the past. NARAL and the Women’s March were highly critical of then-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore when he was accused of molesting teenage girls. And they weighed in early and critically on the Kavanaugh allegations. Both groups helped promote an event on September 24 when women wore black, walked out of their offices at 1 pm and chanted “believe survivors” in support of Christine Blasey Ford and the #MeToo movement at large.
Activists insist that the hesitation to act similarly with regards to the Fairfax allegations is not due to political considerations. They note that Tyson had not consented to her name being made public before her story was published by a right wing news site, and that she had called for privacy when she eventually told her own story.
“I believe strongly that survivors should determine when, and how, and in what form they tell their story. The fact that her story appeared on a blog, not driven by her, with her picture on there, that totally goes against any approach that would be survivor centered,” said Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO National Women’s Law Center. “The second thing is, I was especially moved by her letter, including her request that she be able to do what she wants to do in terms of engage in her work and lead a private life.”
One female progressive activist, who asked not to be named, said that the community was also cognizant of racial sensitivities involved in the story.
“There is an issue of how black men, particularly in the south, are treated around issues of assault and harassment,” the activist said. “They don't want to turn this into an issue of feminists versus black men.”
But there is also, privately, a recognition that the some of the activism in the past may have been too quick-triggered. NARAL, Perez and many prominent Democrats called for Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to resign in December 2017 after he was accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Since then, several Democrats have reportedly expressed regret at not having fully provided Franken with the chance to clear his name or with the presumption of innocence.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the first Democratic senator to call for Franken’s resignation, lost campaign donors over the matter. But she has defended her decision on grounds that a zero-tolerance policy is both morally and politically right and that multiple women had come forward on Franken before she made her declaration.
After days of silence, Gillibrand finally weighed in on the Fairfax scandal Wednesday night, applauding Tyson for coming forward and calling for it to be “taken very seriously” and “investigated." She stopped short of calling for his resignation.
With reporting by Sam Stein