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Foppoli case clouded by persistent questions about fallout of sexual assault on survivors

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or rainn.org

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.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or rainn.org

Two days later, a fifth woman came forward to the Chronicle who said Foppoli forced her to engage in oral copulation dozens of times during a three-year relationship beginning in 2001 and also assaulted her after handcuffing her to a bed. Another woman said she and some friends in 2013 rented the guesthouse at Christopher Creek Winery, owned by Foppoli, his brother and brother-in-law at the time, and that Foppoli interjected himself in their group birthday party, getting in the hot top with them after dinner. At one point, she told the Chronicle, he forced his bare, erect penis into her hand.

Lemus has accused Foppoli of sexual transgressions on two occasions, in February and August of last year, after drinking with him at social gatherings at which she began to feel foggy and confused before becoming violently ill and eventually unconscious, leaving her with only patchy memory of what happened.

She said Foppoli made clear to her on the second occasion that he had a video recording of her engaged in oral copulation with another man — information she took to mean he intended to use it as leverage to prevent her from telling anyone what had happened between them.

Foppoli said it was Lemus who used her position and alcohol to pressure him into unwanted sex on an earlier occasion.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the situation, in coordination with the state Attorney General’s Office. Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has recused her office because Lemus works under her as a deputy district attorney.

Complexity of Lemus allegations

Former county prosecutor Traci Carrillo, who is representing Lemus, said Lemus has received more public support than negative feedback after coming forward with her account. She first talked with sheriff’s authorities the day the initial Chronicle story was published.

But Carrillo said she and Lemus are aware of the questions about her client’s decision to go to Foppoli’s winery in August and how that affects perceptions of her credibility.

Lemus, when first interviewed by The Press Democrat about the allegations, said she was in shock after the first incident, experiencing denial and shame that resulted in a complicated response that she used to cope with the situation, not dissimilar from Stockholm syndrome, where kidnap victims begin to form coping bonds with their abductors.

Carrillo noted that Lemus and Foppoli remained on the Town Council together, and that when an opportunity to network with several out-of-town mayors arose, she accepted the invitation, not anticipating what would happen.

Mindy Mechanic, a clinical/forensic psychologist specializing in trauma and victimization and a former Cal State Fullerton professor, said studies indicate high rates of continued contact between survivors and their perpetrators, depending on the context of their relationship and the degree to which one’s social, financial, professional or family life is dependent on maintaining connection or an appearance of the status quo.

But beyond that, survivors often struggle to reconcile the person who assaulted them with the person they thought they knew, the relationship they thought they had, and the sense of trust and safety they thought they had and knew how to evaluate properly.

“People have a script for what sexual assault looks like” and it doesn’t include family members, people we date, co-workers or friends, Mechanic said. “We think that (they are) a safe haven, that those people are trustworthy, so when you’re sexually assaulted by someone you know, the greater the discrepancy between our script for what a sexual assault is, the harder it is to attach the label ‘sexual assault.’”

Research indicates about half of all sexual assaults between acquaintances are never labeled as such, she said.

Instead, survivors might conclude they are overreacting, or they miscommunicated, or that somehow what happened is an anomaly and they can assume the relationship is still solid.

“It’s a really different thing to say, ‘He took advantage of me,’” she said. “Words are powerful. How you label is powerful.”

Preconceptions about victims weigh on cases

Alli Deering, who worked as a victim advocate for Verity at the Sonoma County Family Justice Center and now coordinates training for child abuse intervention through the Center for Innovation and Resources, said historic biases built into the system continue to favor survivors who seem like “victims” in terms of which cases get prosecuted.

“We don’t get to decide how trauma affects a person,” she said. “We don’t have any idea what else happened to them in life. We want it to look a certain way, but we don’t know what else is happening, or whether they’ll be able to work or be able to live or go to school if they report the person.”

One reason it matters so much is there are often no other witnesses, so how a survivor recalls what happens, and how a jury perceives that person, has an enormous effect on the outcome.

But Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chris Mahurin, who as a detective worked many years investigating sexual assault and trafficking cases, said prospective jurors — even women — will admit they view the clothes the victim wore or the fact she went to a bar on her own as potentially part of the causation for an attack, so deeply ingrained are social expectations around sexual behavior.

“Power and control are the two factors that dictate whether a victim wants to come forward, and that power and control relates to a number of things,” Mahurin said.

In court, assault cases often depend heavily on the testimony of the victim, he said. The strength of their account and the jury’s perception of them can be decisive elements, more so than many other criminal cases where the crime involves more people and produces more evidence. In sexual assault cases, there is often only one witness.

“It is almost like the victim has to prove that something happened to them,” Mahurin said.

Madeleine Keegan-O’Connell, chief executive of the YWCA Sonoma County, which works with women who have been subject to domestic violence and abuse, said she is also a sexual assault survivor. She recalled how the man who assaulted her was able to do so during a meeting some years ago at which “tablemates were shuffled when I arrived so that I was purposefully seated next to the man who acted as he did.”

“The lens continues to be on measuring a victim’s response,” she said. “Why they did not report or why didn’t they speak up sooner? I think the larger dialogue should be to make a dramatic culture shift whereby we don’t become complicit in knowingly understanding that certain members of our communities are either known to misbehave, either mildly, dramatically or violently.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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