Vanessa Tyson charted an impressive career as an African American woman in the overwhelmingly white male field of political science, graduating from prestigious universities and rising to become a tenured professor, a published author and an expert on politics and race.
But beyond the lecture hall, Tyson’s colleagues and friends also saw a more vulnerable side to the woman they know as driven, generous and warm.
Tyson spoke openly about overcoming the trauma of being molested by a relative as a young child and having to testify against him in court. She told her story to friends and colleagues, gave interviews about being a sexual assault survivor and volunteered at a rape crisis center.
“It’s always something that’s in the background in conversations with her,” said Alvin B. Tillery, Jr, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and a friend of Tyson’s since graduate school.
So on Wednesday, when Tyson’s close friends read her public statement detailing her allegation of sexual assault against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), some were not surprised to see her coming forward about an issue she has been speaking up about her entire professional life.
In her lengthy statement Wednesday, Tyson accused 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 of sexual assault, saying the encounter was consensual.
“Reading Dr. Tyson’s account is painful. I have never done anything like what she suggests,” Fairfax said in a statement Wednesday. “Any review of the circumstances would support my account, because it is the truth.”
Tyson, a 42-year-old associate professor of politics at Scripps College who is currently a fellow at Stanford University, said she told no one about the encounter with Fairfax until she learned about his campaign for lieutenant governor. She said she felt it was her obligation to come forward. “It was a responsibility to myself, the beloved students I teach, and the brave women I’ve tried to help overcome their own trauma,” Tyson said in her statement.
Tyson did not respond to a request from The Washington Post to interview her for this story.
Kim Yi Dionne, a good friend of Tyson’s for more than 20 years, said she felt Tyson’s earlier experience with sexual violence as a child, coupled with her advocacy work around sexual assault, gave her a “stronger feeling of duty that compelled her to do something.” (Dionne, an assistant political science professor at the University of California Riverside, is also an editor for the Monkey Cage, an independent blog currently published at The Post.)
In the days since Tyson came forward publicly, her colleagues and friends from academia and beyond have rallied around her, voicing their support for her on social media with the hashtag #IBelieveVanessaTyson. Hundreds of scholars signed a statement of support for Tyson written by the Women’s Caucus for Political Science.
Tyson’s colleagues and students recalled how she has encouraged and mentored junior scholars, particularly other women of color in her field.
Tyson grew up in Whittier, Calif., with a close relationship with her mother, known to her and all of her friends as “Momo.” Despite the toll of her childhood abuse, she was described by classmates as an overachieving student in her upper middle-class high school. She was voted “Most likely to succeed,” among seniors at La Serna High School, according to her high school classmate Charlene Martin.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton University and master’s and PhD degrees in political science from the University of Chicago.
But the trauma from her childhood lingered, at times affecting her grades, her friends said. It also affected the boundaries she set in intimate relationships.
“She was frankly a little more cautious about who she would get involved with,” said her friend Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a political science professor at the University of Southern California. She added that Tyson was “very clear about what makes her uncomfortable.” She recalled a time when a good friend sent Tyson a text message that triggered her past trauma, and Tyson was upfront about why it bothered her.
Another time in graduate school, Dionne recalled how a boyfriend of Tyson’s dressed up as a pimp for Halloween, which Tyson found deeply offensive.
“There were guys she dated in grad school who would make jokes that they didn’t realize were sexually violent jokes,” Dionne said, and Tyson was never afraid to call them out.
A good friend of Tyson’s, who said he dated her in the late 1990s, said she was very clear with him during their relationship about what she was not comfortable doing in intimate settings.
“Based on her experience with assault when she was young, she wasn’t comfortable engaging in certain acts,” said the friend, who asked not to be named because he did not want to become further embroiled in the political scandal.
In particular, Tyson was not at all comfortable with oral sex, because of her childhood trauma, the friend said.
“It was something that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “This is something specific to her and her experience, and is not something that happens casually, or at all.”
That same friend was also close friends with Fairfax, whom he described as affable and personable. He was the mutual connection that first came up in conversation between Fairfax and Tyson when the two met at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The friend recalled Fairfax calling him on the phone to say hello when he and Tyson were together at the convention.
The friend was stunned when, in January 2018, Tyson told him about what happened with Fairfax.
“It’s still surprising and shocking to this day,” the friend said. “Where does this go? What does one do?”
The friend said Tyson told him what she said happened in 2004 after she accompanied Fairfax to his hotel room to pick up some documents. Her account, the friend said, was consistent with her statement Wednesday.
In the hotel room, Tyson said in her statement, he began to kiss her. “Although surprised by his advance, it was not unwelcome and I kissed him back,” she said. But then, she says, he forced her to perform oral sex as she cried.
In her statement Wednesday, Tyson said she found the encounter with Fairfax “especially degrading” given that she volunteered at a rape crisis center in Boston at the time. But she said she suppressed the memories of the incident for years, even as she continued to speak out about her previous experiences with sexual abuse as a child. While living in Boston, Tyson organized survivors to speak for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. She told her own story in speeches and interviews, such as one video for a 2007 series of conversations with survivors of sexual assault.
“We’ve just got to get a little louder,” Tyson said in the clip of the video about fellow survivors of sexual assault. “There needs to be more of us . . . Build the numbers, keep the message going, do what we have to do until they start seeing us.”
Fairfax referred to this 2007 video in a news conference Monday, pointing out that Tyson did not bring up the allegations against him at the time. Tyson pushed back against him, in her own statement:
“This, of course, is not proof that he did not assault me,” she said.
For much of her career as a political science professor, Tyson has focused on the intersection of race and politics. As an associate professor at Scripps College, she published a book about minority representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. But recently, she began to increasingly shift her academic focus to issues surrounding sexual assault.
She landed a fellowship at Stanford’s Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where she is researching the political discourse surrounding sexual violence against women and children in the United States. She recently submitted an essay, set to be published in March in the Journal of Women Politics and Policy, about understanding sexual assault as a political issue, said Nadia Brown, an associate political science professor at Purdue University who helped edit the article.
Tyson had been interested in pursuing research about sexual assault for years, Dionne said, but felt the need to wait until after she was tenured to dive into a topic that was so personal to her.
“People get really uncomfortable when you talk about sexual violence,” Dionne said. “Any woman in political science would say it’s a risk.”
Next week, Tyson is scheduled to speak at a symposium at Stanford University titled “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo.” Jennifer Freyd, a Stanford fellow who is also scheduled to speak at the event, said Tyson told her she is still planning on attending.
Amid the #MeToo movement, Tyson spoke in panels and in media interviews as an expert source about sexual assault and harassment in politics. But it was around the same time, she said in her statement, that she started telling her friends about the encounter with Fairfax.
As women across the country shared stories of their sexual assaults, particularly during the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh, Tyson poured out her own emotions on Twitter.
“To say the last few weeks have been triggering would be an understatement,” she said in one tweet from the week of the Kavanaugh hearings. “Sending love to all the survivors out there whose rapists/assailants called it “consensual.”
“Let me be very clear here,” she tweeted in another. “If you use PHYSICAL FORCE against another human being, and FORCE the person to perform a sex act, it’s NOT CONSENSUAL.”
This week, as she prepared to share her story publicly, Tyson hired the D.C. law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, the same legal team that represented Christine Blasey Ford when she accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.