Women's March
Women’s March 2017 protesters are out in full force (Photo by Annie Hock)

Several of my female friends and colleagues were understandably perplexed when a panel of local men discussed sexual harassment in SLO County as part of the #MeToo movement. Though the #MeToo movement largely focuses on female sexual harassment and assault victims, the panel completely excluded women.

For months, The Tribune‘s Andrew Sheeler has written about Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s handling of Title IX sexual assault complaints. Title IX is a federal law that, in part, serves as a mandate for federally funded universities to investigate and sanction individuals guilty of sexual harassment and misconduct. In the last two fiscal years, Cal Poly received at least 140 Title IX sexual misconduct complaints, yet only 13% of those complaints resulted in sanctions. A vast majority of the complaints were not investigated.

SLO police detective Chad Pfarr was quoted by the New Times last October, stating that several women reporting sexual assaults “conjured up” stories after getting blackout drunk. What made the quote so problematic was that Pfarr is the lead investigator of sexual assaults in SLO.

Cal Poly students organized a #MeToo protest on January 16. Just days later, the Women’s March of San Luis Obispo organized their resistance rally with thousands in attendance. While students and residents came out to show support for victims and raise sexual violence awareness, critics of the movement descended onto social media to offer their opinions. On Facebook, residents — both male and female — described protesters as “loonies on parade,” “nut jobs,” unstable, promiscuous and somehow deserving of sexual misconduct. Their posts were mixed together with edited photos of House Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, featuring distorted faces and exaggerated characteristics.

While comments on social media are often disregarded as inconsequential, some have included criminal threats. Last August, San Luis Obispo resident Daniel Phares was arrested for posting criminal threats against female organizers of a vigil against the racially charged violence and anger in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 45-year-old suspect also had a long history of violent posts targeting the political left, including women. The detective overseeing Phares’ criminal investigation was none other than Mr. Pfarr, who told the New Times that most of his posts did not rise to the level of being criminal.

In January, Phares resurfaced in the public discussion. This time, his mugshot appeared as part of a short film presentation by San Luis Obispo resident Dr. C. Hite. Hite appeared before the SLO County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 23 to attack District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill by comparing him to Phares. She criticized the supervisor for telling female organizers of the Women’s March where to promote their event. On Facebook, Hill wrote to organizers about the “Dave Congalton Show,” a show that repeatedly targeted his wife — a definitive far cry from publishing criminal threats against protest organizers.

Last November, I published an article revealing that several unnamed women are alleging that Congalton sexually harassed them. After sharing the article, Congalton’s supporters criticized his accusers for not stepping forward and decried the piece as baseless innuendo. Some of Congalton’s supporters, who criticized my article, are avid supporters of the #MeToo movement; they previously shared news articles featuring unnamed sexual harassment victims — people who don’t step forward because of fears of retaliation. When Congalton repeatedly uses his public platform to attack women, it’s disingenuous for his supporters to presume that retaliation wouldn’t happen. The fact they pick and choose which unnamed victims they want to believe is counterintuitive and counterproductive to the #MeToo movement as a whole.

Sexual harassment and misconduct cases are largely ignored by the local establishment. While the Women’s March and protesters are doing their best to raise awareness and promote policies to protect women, there’s also a counterculture of sexual misconduct denial, exploitation and shaming that must be addressed. That’s certainly not going to happen with an all-male panel, or a male columnist like myself writing about the marginalization of sexual misconduct in SLO County.

We have to do a lot better than that.

Aaron Ochs is a columnist, marketing entrepreneur and founder of SLO Truth. Ochs is also involved in his community as founder of Save Morro Bay (www.savemorrobay.com).

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