As someone who has written extensively about (and experienced) sexual violence in Jackson, I was disturbed and saddened to see that our mayor faced a rape accusation in 2018. Charges were never filed, and the way in which the initial reports became public was problematic, maybe illegal. As troubling as the allegations and the sheriff department’s actions were, most disturbing to me has been the community’s response — on every side.

People who sought and released the report have weaponized the alleged victim’s experience for political purposes. Their evident glee at having discovered a woman was raped belies their supposed concern for the victim — a person who did not want or ask for this information to be released. Their past vitriol and transparent disdain for Pete casts a shadow over their motives.

However, the mayor has weaponized this weaponization — in a letter from Monday he suggested that he is being targeted for his political courage and that his opponents are dragging him through the mud in order to further their agenda, based on a false allegation. There is an implication that anyone questioning the truth of this report is playing into the hands of bad actors.

This feels equally unfair and insincere. I have supported Pete’s politics for years. I was thrilled when he ran in 2015 and have defended him since. I have set aside personal discomfort with some of his behavior because of my sincere gratitude for his advocacy regarding housing, race, police oversight, and mask mandates. I know other women who have done the same.

In addition to the letter, anonymous and serious rumors have circulated regarding the alleged 2018 victim. As far as I know, these rumors have not been substantiated by objective reports. Whether or not Pete is the source of these rumors, they are damaging, uncited and unethical.

What is publicly available is an article by the News&Guide and the police report. Although the victim pursued charges, the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation concluded “the evidence did not support probable cause, and it was the opinion of the DCI agent that no crime had occurred,” Prosecutor Erin Weisman said in a statement.

I have experienced assault in Jackson, I did not respond in the way an ideal victim would, and I don’t believe the man who assaulted me realized that he violated consent. I’m not sure if there would have been evidence to prove a crime. These situations can, unfortunately, be murky.

The publicly available information does not provide irrefutable proof of a false allegation — although I have heard many people suggest that it is. A DCI agent’s opinion is not proof that something didn’t happen. From what we know about consent, definitions and understanding of sexual violence, and the underreporting and under-identification of sex crimes, again, I don’t believe this proves she wasn’t assaulted.

This is also clearly not proof that she was assaulted, though I am inclined to believe her. Charges may never be filed (or can later be dropped) for a variety of reasons. Women are often discredited, called crazy and accused of lying after allegations like these. She did not want this information released, but now that it is, we need to make sense of how to move forward in this community, without falling prey to easy explanations that align simply with what we want politically.

We don’t have enough information. In the absence of information, many of us have made assumptions and filled in the gaps — often with beliefs that conveniently adhere to our preconceived alliances.

Rather than defensively close ranks around our own, let’s hold ourselves to a higher collective standard. Let’s keep victims at the forefront of our minds, and remember how power, gender and social status can influence our perception of these issues. Let’s be deliberate and hold our representatives accountable. Let’s avoid a whisper network of people desperate to either defend or destroy Pete. It’s a disservice to all of us.

It is painful when people we respect and agree with are accused, especially when that accusation has surfaced in sordid, confused ways. It’s especially painful if we believe they did nothing wrong. But our desire to make this go away doesn’t make it go away. Our inclination to believe one person over another doesn’t always mean that belief is correct.

To my fellow progressives — we cannot abandon what we know about the dynamics of patriarchy and sexual violence because of the particulars of this situation.

No one knows the truth except for two people. What has been made available is not yet, from my perspective, sufficient to treat this allegation as a wild falsity that we should be outraged by and move on from.

We may learn more soon. But, regardless of the outcome, this situation has been a mirror, and we should pay attention to what we’ve seen. Our community’s response has revealed a willingness to attack one another rather than focus on bigger issues. It’s demonstrated a tendency to use survivors of sexual violence as tools to bolster our allegiances. It’s reflected a desire to traffic in over-simplifications rather than engage with the nuanced, principled conversations this situation warrants.

This scandal and the pressure to defend or deflect also has eclipsed more important conversations. Why do men in office have so many more sex scandals than women? Why aren’t more women elected in the first place? Why is women’s discomfort with men’s behavior put aside in the name of progressive movements?

There’s a lot here, Jackson. Let’s be careful with how we move forward.

Sarah Ross is a lifelong local who has written about sexual violence and gender based discrimination in Jackson. She now works as a paralegal. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their author.

(2) comments

Jill Wright

Thank you Sarah....again!

Anne Marie Wells

Thank you for your thoughtful and victim-centered insights.

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