Scripps College professor accuses Virginia Lt. Gov. of sexual assault

Vanessa Tyson accused Virgina Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, NBC reported Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Scripps College)

This article has been updated to include the statement Vanessa Tyson released Wednesday.

This article was updated Thursday to include additional information and interviews.

CW: Description of alleged sexual assault

Scripps College politics professor Vanessa Tyson has accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004, according to a statement released by her lawyers Wednesday.

Tyson said she accompanied Fairfax to his hotel room to collect some papers at the Democratic National Convention, when Fairfax was a staffer on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

“What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into sexual assault,” Tyson wrote. “Mr. Fairfax put his hand behind my neck and forcefully pushed my head towards his crotch. … Mr. Fairfax forced me to perform oral sex on him. I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual. To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent.”

Tyson has hired Katz, Marshall & Banks — the legal team that represented Stanford professor Christine Blasey Ford in her sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Fairfax has retained the services of Kavanaugh’s legal team, Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz.

TSL has been unable to contact Tyson directly, and her legal team declined to comment.

The allegations first surfaced Sunday in Big League Politics, a right-wing media outlet with a history of promoting discredited far-right conspiracy theories, after Tyson’s friend shared Tyson’s private Facebook post with the outlet without permission, according to Tyson’s statement.

Fairfax has repeatedly denied the allegations and insisted the encounter was consensual.

“Reading Dr. Tyson’s account is painful. I have never done anything like what she suggests,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “Any review of the circumstances would support my account, because it is the truth. I take this situation very seriously and continue to believe Dr. Tyson should be treated with respect. But, I cannot agree to a description of events that simply is not true.”

Fairfax is poised to become the governor of Virginia if current Gov. Ralph Northam steps down.

Fairfax is poised to become Virginia’s next governor if current Gov. Ralph Northam steps down. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Northam is facing calls from both parties to resign following the Feb. 1 revelation of a photo published on Northam’s medical school yearbook page that showed two men, one wearing blackface and the other dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Big League Politics was the first outlet to publish the racist photo in Northam’s yearbook.

Northam initially confirmed he was in the picture, but later denied it while also admitting to dressing in blackface on another occasion. He has so far ignored the demands that he step down.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who would be next in line for the governor’s office if both Northam and Fairfax resigned, also admitted to wearing blackface while in college Wednesday morning.

Several prominent Democrats, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom are running for president, called for an investigation of Tyson’s accusations. So far, prominent national Democrats have stopped short of calling for Fairfax’s resignation.

Tyson said she wrote the leaked Facebook post to vent her “frustration” that Fairfax might become governor.

“It was not my intention in that moment to inject myself into what has become a much larger political battle,” she wrote in her statement.

“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 about Mr. Fairfax,” she wrote. “Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation.”

Tyson, who said she is a Democrat, claimed to have no political motive, and said she hopes to return to her life as an academic and professor. She added that having job security through tenure made her feel more secure in coming forward with her allegations.

“Vanessa Tyson is a beloved and valued member of our community,” Scripps Vice President for External Relations and Institutional Advancement Binti Harvey wrote in an email to TSL. “While we are unable to comment on the incident in question, which occurred prior to Professor Tyson’s employment at Scripps College, we support women sharing their stories of sexual assault as a powerful tool for healing and change.”

The Scripps Associated Students board also expressed support for Tyson in a statement emailed to Scripps students Thursday morning.

“We, the Scripps community, gather in solidarity with Professor Tyson and recognize the incredible courage and sacrifice it took for her to share her story. We want to openly express our full and unequivocal support for her at this time,” the statement reads.

Scripps politics students told TSL that Tyson is an exceptional professor.

Alison Jue SC ’20 took Tyson’s Women in Public Policy class, which she said centered around discussions of sexual assault in the workplace. Jue said Tyson often gave tips to students on what to do if they experience sexual assault in the workplace and how to navigate relationships with male superiors.  

“She made it very clear that if we ever experienced discrimination in the workplace she would be very willing to talk about that and give advice,” Jue said. “That meant a lot to me as a student.”

Tyson wrote in her statement that, in reporting Fairfax’s assault,  she “felt a responsibility to myself, the beloved students I teach and the brave women I’ve tried to help overcome their own trauma.”

Harper Mills SC ’20 also expressed admiration for Tyson.

“She’s one of the most brilliant humans I know, and I know for a fact she grounds her work across all fields in compassion and empathy,” Mills wrote in a message to TSL.

Scripps alumna Lina Mihret SC ’18 created a form allowing Scripps community members to submit messages of support to Tyson. She plans to send a care package with the messages to Tyson.

“I hope she understands how much our respect for her has grown through her brave action,” she wrote in a message to TSL. “I also thought it was important for Scripps as a community to show support for one of the few black women professors at the school.”

Mihret said Tyson supported her through difficult times on campus.

“It’s important to show up for people [who] showed up for you,” she wrote. “When I was having a particularly difficult time on campus, Dr. Tyson made sure to check in with me, giving me advice and a listening ear. She showed me a lot of kindness when I really needed it.”

Tyson told the the Washington Post in November 2017 and again in January 2018 that Fairfax had assaulted her, but the Post said it unable to corroborate Tyson’s allegations or Fairfax’s account of the events in question despite a weeks-long investigation.

Tyson is currently completing a fellowship year exploring “political discourse surrounding sexual assault, corresponding policies and the unique identities of sexual assault survivors” at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, according to Stanford’s website.

Marc Rod contributed reporting.


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