Foppoli case clouded by persistent questions about fallout of sexual assault on survivors
In the days and weeks since allegations of sexual assault involving Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli surfaced early last month, public support for his accusers has been overwhelming.
In community gatherings and on social media, allies and survivors of unrelated incidents of sexual abuse and violence have lent their voices to a chorus of encouragement, hailing the bravery of those who have come forward with their accounts. Many allies repeated the refrain: “I believe the women.”
But deep-seated questions have cropped up, too, in the public discourse about the Foppoli scandal, the kind that experts say reveal pervasive myths and misconceptions about how sexual assault survivors should behave or respond in the wake of personal violation.
There are those who wonder why the seven women who have publicly accused Foppoli of sexual assault and abuse did not come forward earlier or tell their stories to police until recently. Some wonder why one accuser stayed in a relationship with him in the early 2000s and was, she said, assaulted time and again over several years, according to her account in the San Francisco Chronicle.
And they’ve asked why another woman, a fellow Windsor Town Council member, attended an event with other political figures at his winery last August, six months after she alleges he drugged her and raped her at her home. Councilwoman Esther Lemus says she believes she was drugged again at the second gathering, to facilitate a nonconsensual sexual encounter with someone else that she said Foppoli caught on video.
Foppoli has vehemently denied the allegations lodged against him by the women.
Experts and victim advocates say questions like these are not new but rather a reflection of persistent stereotypes and faulty expectations that complicate how society understands sexual assault.
That’s partly because of the commonly held narrative of rape — where a masked stranger with a weapon forces himself on someone and flees into the dark, and the survivor screams, maybe fights back, recognizes the incident as a crime, and calls police.
But trauma, shock and fear may cause a victim to freeze or be compliant, creating doubt in their mind about the issue of consent. Their recollection may be spotty, due to the way the brain focuses attention and encodes memory when “fight or flight” hormones take over. They may be numb, instead of outwardly distressed, fueling questions about the authenticity of their account.
The situation becomes more complicated when the perpetrator is a friend, a co-worker, a family member or an acquaintance, as in about 4 in 5 cases of sexual assault.
The complex emotional and intellectual processing required of a survivor in the aftermath of any sexual violence is simply too layered and individual to fit a uniform mold, but it’s especially confounding when a boundary has been crossed by someone trusted, even loved, experts said.
There’s even a term experts use for the divergent set of responses to sexual assault that are often misunderstood: counterintuitive victim behavior.
“There’s no kind of one-size-fits-all format of a reaction to a sexual assault or how one continues in their life, because we all carry with us a history, and we don’t know what everybody’s history is until that moment when that sexual assault happens,” said Christine Castillo, executive director of Verity rape crisis, trauma and healing center in Sonoma County.
Betrayal and confusion, second-guessing, self-doubt, shame and humiliation are common impediments even to many survivors’ ability to make sense of what has happened. Such feelings often result in minimizing the incident, though — even if a stranger is involved — there is no straightforward, “right” way for a survivor to work through it afterward, Castillo and other experts said.
And given unrelenting social biases and expectations about how women should dress and behave in public — even after the #MeToo movement — there’s a legitimate fear of victim blaming in either case, experts said.
Foppoli allegations unfold in public
Foppoli, 38, has vowed to defend himself against the allegations, which first arose as part of a monthslong investigation detailed April 8 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The subjects included: an 18-year-old volunteer for his Assembly campaign who says Foppoli raped her twice on New Year’s Eve 2003, as they were breaking up; a junior college dance classmate who shared a cab with him after a night out with others in 2006, and who said she had to lock herself in a bathroom after he had the cab drop them off at his place and he slid into bed without her permission; a woman who met him at an Active 20-30 club convention in Reno in 2012 and who was nearly unconscious after a night of drinking, when he took her to his hotel room instead of escorting her to hers; and a young French intern who said Foppoli groped her and forcibly kissed her after an event at his winery in 2019.