The number of women who have accused San Diego Mayor (D) Bob Filner of sexual harassment is now 13. That’s 13 women who were violated by a man who told one woman who worked for him to come into work without panties; put his hand in a woman’s bra, forcibly kissed multiple women, abused his position of power and political connections, hit on women in what should have been political meetings. I’ve written about why what Filner did was very different from what Weiner did and how the media conflates the two as part of the same culture of sex scandals. But what Filner did was categorically worse than what Weiner did. He violated women who did not consent. And he engaged in unlawful behavior. Grouping the two men together trivializes sexual harassment and the importance of consent.
But it looks like Filner may be worse than we thought. Among the 13 accusers, at least 8 are female veterans and members of the National Women’s Veterans Association of America (NWVAA) in San Diego. Almost of of these women are survivors of sexual assault in the military. And some of them think Filner intentionally preyed on them.
Eldonna Fernandez was raped three times while serving in the military. She met Filner at a National Women’s Veterans Association of America “Healing and Hiring Fair.” She recalls,
“He looks at my card. He looks at me. He says, ‘Fernandez. Are you married? Do you have a husband?’ Very quick, very direct. I said, ‘No, I’m divorced.’ ‘Well, you’re beautiful, and I can’t take my eyes off you, and I want to take you to dinner.’ I was really shocked and I was like, ‘Uh, OK.’”
He then allegedly left a Fernandez a voice mail saying “Hi, it’s your newly favorite congressman, Bob Filner. You know, the one who fell in love with you at your last speech,” Her speech was about being raped.
At the same NWVAA event, Army veteran Gerri Tindley spoke about her violent rape from which she became pregnant and had a child. She says that Filner rubbed her and got so close to him that she almost fell off the couch they were sitting on in an effort to move away from him.
And they’re not the only ones. Tara Jones, the president of the NWVAA, who was also raped in the military, says that 7 to 8 women have told her about incidents with Filner occurring at women’s veteran functions: “He went to dinners, asked women out to dinners, grabbed breasts, buttocks. The full gamut. Everything that is complete violation of what we stand for.” Jones says Filner intentionally targets these women: “He’s a sexual predator. And he used this organization for his own personal agenda.” It’s especially abhorrent because Filner presented himself as an ally to veterans and sexual assault survivors. Jones even stumped for him during his mayoral campaign and had him come talk to her group and attend various events. Jones says “He preyed upon people who were vulnerable, who he knew nine times out of 10 would not speak up… It’s not OK. You need to not be in office. You need to be out of office. You need to not have the ability to prey on others.” Fernandez agrees:
“We’re all victims of military sexual assault. It appears to me that he was targeting the organization and hitting on the women of this organization because they were easy prey. He’s part of an organization that’s against sexual assault and sexual violence against women and sexual harassment. And he’s doing the very thing that we are fighting to make stop in our service and in our country.”
And Tindley thinks Filner preyed on sexual assault survivors as well: “How can you be a representative, take an oath, and be a predator? Do you know how damaging that is for women who are truly victims of military sexual trauma or rape in general? Who can we trust to help us?”
These women were already traumatized by being sexually assaulted. And they kept their tragedies to themselves. But now they speak openly about their experience as they organize around stopping the culture of rape and impunity that permeates the military. Similarly, with Filner. they were violated by someone who was supposed to have their back. And initially they were reluctant to speak. Tindley’s explanation of why she didn’t say anything reveals the dangerous dynamic created by men who abuse their power: “What am I gonna say? You’re a congressman. What am I gonna say to you? What am I gonna say to his man? Can he destroy my life, can he stop me from moving forward?” But, once again, these women are speaking up.