Me Too, when even an acting Colorado State Legislator is sexually harassed

“Now darling, you don’t need to make a scene,” CO State Rep. Daneya Esgar was told after being groped by a colleague, she was expected to stay quiet. She didn’t.

State Representative Daneya Esgar (Photo by Jason Prescott)

It took Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, three drafts before finally publishing a post to Facebook acknowledging that she, too, was a victim of sexual assault and harassment. The most recent incident was just a week earlier, she wrote.

State Representative Daneya Esgar made public on Facebook that she too was sexually harassed and assaulted by a “colleague” and was expected to stay quiet.

The posts tagged or titled “Me Too” started as a rallying cry after an exposé in the New York Times cataloged the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Social media posts on Twitter and Facebook came from women of all walks of life, all skin colors, all sexual orientations — a message that it wasn’t one type of woman that fell victim to sexual violence. The message was one that quickly reinforced that the problem is widespread and doesn’t discriminate.

“Like the (Facebook) post said, the first time I was sexually harassed I wasn’t even old enough to go to school,” Esgar said.

The latest was just a week before a wildfire of “Me Too” posts hit the internet.

“I was at an event with a number of different professionals and colleagues from the general assembly were there. I had to leave for another event, so I went to another table to thank the woman who planned the event,” Esgar recalled.

As she was standing, waiting to say goodbye and slip off to the next gathering, Esgar said she felt a hand wrap around her thigh “and start moving upward.”

“There was a table of people around that didn’t realize what had just happened,” said Esgar, who exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!” as she quickly realized she was groped by a man she only described as somebody she regularly works with sitting at the table.

The response from the man was, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene,” according to Esgar.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s completely inappropriate and for him to tell me not to make a big deal about something,” she said.

Perhaps that’s also part of the problem, Esgar said: That women often feel like they’re the ones who are overreacting.

“We are (as women) absolutely conditioned to feel guilty,” she said. “We need to start calling out sexual assault and sexual harassment for what it is. We should put it out there and what was interesting about the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to see the number of men surprised by the number of women admitting they had been apart of an incident.”

House Speaker Crisanta Duran said the social media campaign has brought a sense of prevalence to the issue, but it’s one that isn’t new.

“In my opening day speech I spoke to the importance of inclusiveness, and of condemning that which is inexcusable,” she said in a statement. “Everyone should have the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace and in their day to day life.”

Duran, who would be in charge of investigating any kind of reported sexual harassment that took place in the legislature, added that “it’s clear that this is an issue that impacts us all, and we should all strive to create a more inclusive, safe, and respectful environment, in the legislature and more broadly.”

Esgar said she’s grateful that in her past she was able to have access to therapy after incidents of sexual assault, and that she feels comfortable admitting it happened to her. But that doesn’t mean every woman who has encountered that type of abuse should feel that they have to speak out like she has.

That was the flipside conversation to the campaign: that it would be a trigger for many women. Esgar said no woman should feel shamed into talking about their incident or not talking about it, healing is individual.

Nationally, one in five women will experience rape, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. In Colorado, the prevalence of sexual assault against women is 23.8 percent, higher than the national average of 18.3 percent.

If it seems like sexual assault and harassment have landed a permanent place in the news cycle, it’s probably because it has. Esgar points to the current president, who was elected even after an old tape surfaced in which Trump boasts his own fame, saying he can do anything to women, even “grab them by the p*ssy,” as the tipping point.

The Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault spokeswoman, Neta Meltzer, said on one hand, the different recent news events — the Trump tape, Taylor Swift winning a symbolic dollar against her assaulter, and Weinstein’s several accusers — have shined a light on the previously taboo subject. On the other, she said many women fear they will be met with blame or disbelief if they speak up.

“Our goal is to make sure that individuals feel safe to come forward – to make sure they know that they will be believed and that they are never to blame for what happened to them,” Meltzer said. “So many survivors have been met with skepticism and victim-blaming responses, so it is easy to understand why reporting or disclosing one’s experience is not always a safe or realistic option. The important thing is that survivors get the help and resources they need, and that they know they are not alone.”

Esgar said she has been in two abusive relationships in the past, but is fortunate to have had access to counseling and now has a supportive wife and title that allows her to talk about the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

“Nothing has changed with this position. But it does give me a platform to call things out a little bit louder,” Esgar said of her job as a state lawmaker.

She recalls one particular moment during the 2017 legislative session when debate on an immigration-related bill amendment caught a comment about a rape, which Esgar said had become routine throughout the session.

Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, referenced a case in Maryland where an 18-year-old student raped a 14-year-old girl in a school bathroom stall. It was later discovered the offender was from Guatemala, illegally living in the U.S.

On that day in mid-April Esgar left the floor and found Rep. Faith Winter, also a survivor of sexual assault, sitting and waiting out the speech outside of the chamber as well.

“I went to her and said we’ll go (and speak) together and we waited our turn to speak and we went down and basically said we didn’t want another survivor’s story to further his political agenda anymore,” Esgar said.

At the well of the House, standing side-by-side, the two were obviously upset. Winter said the story of a sexual assault victim was being used to “target hate” and “incite fear against an incredibly important population.”

Esgar told the chamber that using one woman’s traumatic experience over and over again had to end.

“We put up with it all session,” the lawmaker, on the verge of tears, said. “And we can’t take it anymore.”

The two promptly left the well and after more discussion the amendment failed.

After Esgar published her “Me Too” Facebook post she said she didn’t think it was such a big deal, even as she saw the speech from Williams as distasteful and insensitive. Esgar said she knows so many women who have encountered similar incidents as she has. But she also hopes maybe her story, like millions of others posted to social media, will shift the conversation and convince men to listen and women to stop shaming each other.

“The therapy went through helped me because of what happened. Every single day I’m working to stand up for people at the Capitol,” Esgar said. “I try to hold myself in that strength and to move me forward and be strong not just for myself but for the people I make decisions for everyday.”

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Written by Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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