WASHINGTON — A California woman went public with her sexual assault accusation against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Wednesday, saying in a statement that she repressed the memory for years but came forward in part because of the possibility that Fairfax could succeed a scandal-mired governor.
Vanessa Tyson, a 42-year-old political science professor who studies the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, says Fairfax held her head down and forced her to perform oral sex on him in his hotel room at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.
“I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” Tyson said in a three-page statement issued by her attorney. “To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent. Quite the opposite. I consciously avoided Mr. Fairfax for the remainder of the convention and I never spoke to him again.”
The accusation comes amid calls from top Democrats for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam over a racist photo that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. Fairfax, who would be in line to become governor if Northam resigned, said Wednesday his sexual encounter with Tyson was consensual and questioned why she waited so long to come forward.
At the time of the 2004 convention, Fairfax, now 39, was a law student serving as an aide to then-Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
While Tyson said in her statement that she never spoke to Fairfax again, Fairfax said Tyson made efforts to keep in contact with him after their encounter and even wanted him to meet her mother.
“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” Fairfax said.
Tyson said Wednesday the incident left her feeling deeply humiliated and ashamed but she repressed the memory to focus on her career as an academic. She only began to tell friends about the alleged assault in October 2017, after seeing a photo of Fairfax with an article about his campaign. She said she was inspired in part by the #MeToo movement to contact The Washington Post, which investigated her accusation and decided not to publish a story because it could not corroborate it.
Tyson said she became embroiled in the issue most recently in a cryptic Facebook post she wrote after news stories suggested that the racist photo scandal surrounding Northam could elevate Fairfax to the governor’s job.
“I felt a jarring sense of both outrage and despair,” she said in the statement. “That night I vented my frustration on Facebook in a message that I wrote as a private post. I did not identify Lt. Governor Fairfax by name but stated that it seemed inevitable that the campaign staffer who assaulted me during the Democratic Convention in 2004 was about to get a big promotion.”
Fairfax, who has been married since 2006, has called Tyson’s accusation part of a political smear campaign. Tyson said that she has no political motive and is a “proud Democrat.”
“My only motive in speaking now is to refute Mr. Fairfax’s falsehoods and aspersions of my character, and to provide what I believe is important information for Virginians to have as they make critical decisions that involve Mr. Fairfax,” Tyson said.
The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.
Tyson said she met Fairfax while they were working at the convention and he suggested they get some fresh air by walking to his hotel room.
She said that “what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault” and that Fairfax forced her head to his crotch, where he had unzipped his pants.
“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,” she said.
Tyson, an associate professor in politics at Scripps College, a liberal arts college for women in Claremont, California, is on a yearlong fellowship at Stanford University, where she’s studying the political discourse of sexual assault. She is slated to lead a symposium there next week titled: “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo.”
In a 2007 YouTube video , Tyson talks about her work at a Boston rape crisis center, about being a victim of incest at age 8 and about the importance of sexual assault victims coming forward.
“People don’t want to hear the message — so we just have to get a little louder,” Tyson said. “Build the numbers, keep the message going — do what we have to do until they start seeing us.”
Tyson, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, earned her undergraduate degree at Princeton and a doctorate at the University of Chicago.
In a foreword of one of her books, she describes herself as the daughter of a single mother who had few financial resources. But she also thanks a long list of friends and mentors who helped raise her, including a woman Tyson recounts as teaching her to read at age 4 and putting whiteout on her birth certificate to enroll her in kindergarten a year early.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged, Tyson has been frequently quoted as an expert about the intersection of politics and sexual assault and harassment claims, including the allegations by multiple women that triggered the 2017 resignation of Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat.
Tyson this week hired the same Washington law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychology professor who accused then Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her.
During the Kavanaugh hearings last fall, Tyson posted on Twitter: “Sending love to all the survivors out there whose rapists/assailants called it ‘consensual’ and whose society privileges an old boys club over all else.”
AP Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace contributed to this report. Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland.