PRESS DEMOCRAT CLOSE TO HOME, BY MADELEINE KEEGAN O’CONNELL, CEO, YWCA SONOMA COUNTY.
April 18, 2021 —
Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Cuomo, Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz and now, closer to home, Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli faces multiple allegations of sexual assault. You and I know this is only a partial list. We live in a country of due process and the presumption of innocence, and yet many of us immediately take sides when we see yet another allegation reported in the news. Today I ask our community to take a moment to consider the victims. Some will ask, “Why didn’t she go to the authorities?” and others will jeer, “What took her so long to come forward?” I can’t speak to why victims may or may not come forward, based on your timetable or not at all. But I can tell you why I didn’t.
In 1999, I was representing my employer, a local community bank, at an evening dinner affair. I was seated next to a very well-known and influential man, now deceased (may he rest in peace). Sometime around the third course, and having consumed more than his fair share of wine, this man reached over and slid his hand into the back side of my evening slacks.
Mortified, I removed his hand and continued on with the dinner. The second time he reached over, he succeeded in going so far down that I was literally and horrifyingly sitting on his hand. It was then that I again removed his hand and then myself from the party. Before stepping away, I had words for him, which he heard, but remarkably, his wife, seated on the other side of him, did not. My departure may have seemed abrupt to my other tablemates, but I did not want to return.
You may be wondering what I did about it come Monday at the bank. The answer is nothing. And there are days I regret that. At the time, I decided that the guy was a jerk, was not to be trusted, and although difficult in business circles, I never spoke to him again. The incident occurred at a time in my career and my life when I didn’t call him out because I didn’t think anyone would or could do anything about it. I had been the target of unwanted attention in professional environments before and knew how to take care of myself.
The man was not an employee of the company I worked for, and I was keenly aware that relationships in our community are often deeply intertwined and may go back decades. I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me. I considered his drunken transgression to be an isolated incident. I didn’t presume he had a history of this behavior, though I will never know for sure.
Nine years ago, my career took a turn into the nonprofit sector, where I am proud to represent the mission of YWCA Sonoma County, our community’s solely dedicated domestic violence service provider. Our 24/7 crisis hotline — 707-546-1234 — answers thousands of calls each year from victims of abuse and violence, and each and every one of them is believed.
Even in the #MeToo era, victim blaming and shaming is one big reason women don’t come forward, even to their own friends and family. It takes immense courage to recount episodes, both privately and publicly, and accusations must be taken seriously. It’s time to stop victim blaming and create a culture where victims can feel safe coming forward, where they are heard and believed.
Madeleine Keegan O’Connell is chief executive officer of YWCA Sonoma County.