Last Friday, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner resigned from office in the face of accusations of sexual harassment from 18 women. The move comes out of mediation efforts in a lawsuit with one of his accusers, Irene McCormack Jackson, who once worked as Filner’s communications director. As part of the deal, the San Diego City Council has agreed to pay a portion of Filner’s legal defense and damages.
Public and political pressure for Filner to resign mounted steadily during the last three months as women came forward. While the resignation has been called a “vindication” for his accusers, the mayor remained defiant in his leave-taking, claiming that he had been a victim of hysteria by a “lynch mob,” for what was “awkwardness” and “thoughtlessness.” He refuses to admit that he sexually harassed anyone.
Filner’s case could easily be seen as one in a string of high-profile sex scandals involving mayors and would-be mayors, but it’s a mistake to lump his actions together with those of former Rep. Anthony Weiner or former New York Gov. Elliott Spitzer. Each of these cases engages issues of power and gender, but conflating the three obscures the important and differing issues at hand.
Filner is charged with sexual harassment and is under criminal investigation. The harmful impacts of sexual harassment are well documented. It’s considered a gateway offense to more severe crimes such as stalking, assault and rape. Research also suggests that victims of sexual harassment suffer psychological harms, fear and restriction of movement. (One of Filner’s accusers, Sharon Bernie-Cloward, president of the San Diego Port Tenants Association, said she was so frightened after Filner groped her at an event that she had to be walked to her car.) If guilty, Filner abused his power as mayor by forcing himself on numerous women who trusted his public persona and politics.
Spitzer, who engaged the services of former sex worker Ashley Dupré, took advantage of his power in a very different way. It’s been widely noted that Spitzer championed tough criminal penalties for soliciting prostitutes while in office, though he escaped charges himself. The interesting question here, however, isn’t whether Spitzer should have been charged. It’s why anyone believes criminalization results in deterrence or protection for those engaged in sex work. Criminalization of sex work is known to endanger sex workers in a variety of ways and contributes to the public stigma against them.
While Dupré was never so endangered, she has not been accorded any of the public esteem that Spitzer appears to have held onto. The former governor now stands for political comeback, albeit for the much lower office of New York City comptroller. Despite her efforts to break into the music industry, Dupré will always have a name associated with the scandal.
Weiner’s sexting didn’t break any laws. He instead engaged in infidelity using technology in a way that, apparently, one in five Americans do. Some voters may find sexting inappropriate, and a larger share may view it as intolerable from a person in public office, but Weiner’s actions vastly differ from Filner’s uninvited comments, groping and assault. In the former’s case, the question becomes what kind of values and what level of transparency citizens should demand from their political leaders.
These three shouldn’t fall under a single headline of sex scandal, as the differences between them provoke key questions about gender in society: How to stop sexual harassment? What is a meaningful response to sex work for all parties involved? What do want from political leaders in terms of actions and transparency?
These questions matter to cities, and not only in terms of the 2013 mayoral races. Cities, so frequently the first sites of political mobilization, are often the first places to find innovative programs and policies responding to gender-based violence, sex work and other gender-related issues.
For example, an international anti-street harassment campaign that took seed in New York City has since galvanized a worldwide movement. Local organizations such as New York-based Sex Workers Project provide necessary legal and medical services to sex workers, while Vancouver has supported several measures including a mobile van to protect sex workers’ safety. National and international networks of advocacy groups (such as SWOP and SWAN) have worked to reduce stigma against sex workers and improve their lives at the city level for many years. Cities and counties also serve as sites for innovative criminal justice responses to gender-based violence (like Project RESTORE in Pima County, Ariz., a restorative justice pilot co-run by several agencies to improve response to rape).
A necessary voice in making these issues compelling and understandable are the women involved in the recent spate of sexual incidents, should they be able and willing to speak out. Did Filner’s victim achieve the justice she was seeking? Was it enough that Filner was publicly shamed into resigning but still never admitted guilt? What about the other women who came forward? Dupré is reportedly avoiding the media and should be afforded privacy. What can other sex workers and sex worker advocates tell us about the effects of laws and policies like the ones that ensnared Spitzer?
That media attention is trained on the men is understandable, as they were elected into office. But more meaningful conversations can be had with their female counterparts.
Jessica Chiu is a writer, lawyer, and public health professional living in Philadelphia.