We Must Support Women Before, During and After Coming Forward in NJ

Koren Frankfort

In deliberating heartedly over how NJ took two years to address our #MeToo issues since the controversial article I wrote in 2017, and how because the press – in all their watchdoggery – forced them to deal with it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no heroes in this reckoning, but I am nevertheless happy that folks are beginning to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Given that the proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube with me, that any prospective *anyone* in life who googles me will see that I have been assaulted and am vocal about it, that I actually do know what this is like, I am comfortable sharing my own story… only because I already did.

Once upon a time, I applied for a women’s leadership training program in NJ and was turned away with the explanation that they were divided as a board regarding my answer to the question: Why did you get into politics?

This was my answer and continues to be my answer:

I didn’t originally want to get into this field.  I got into politics because I am the daughter of a war refugee who worked nights to feed us and we struggled.  I was going to be an opera singer, but at 17 years-old, I was raped violently by a man and was denied justice by the state of NJ.  I developed a chip on my shoulder and wanted to take what I learned from the series of injustices upon me and my elders to help others however I could. I got a masters in Urban Policy and Management, and have been working my way into the mix ever since.

The board composed entirely of women was split and, from what I was told, I was called “unprofessional” by women from more privileged backgrounds than I am from, and was defended by those from less privileged backgrounds than I am overall, for mentioning I was assaulted.

In a state of incomparable political power silos unimaginable to people from other states, our highest ranking leaders have been ignoring public outcries by victims – in my case for literal years until recently.  Now, to be fair, survivors should feel safer to come forward than we once were, but I also think we need to be honest and strategic with how we recommend they do so.

When I came forward, I felt deeply compelled to do so, like I had no choice and would never sleep again if I didn’t. I was really scared to because I knew I would carry that, like my rape and nonreceipt of justice, for the rest of my life.  Make no qualms about it, that is a lot to carry. So I do understand the need to come forward, but the ambivalence is not without merit.

In the last few weeks, I have been in contact with sexual assault advocacy groups and leaders of my great esteem in NJ and other states.  Throughout this, I have a few insights I would like to share.

There is more than one way to come forward and in making that very big decision, and it is a very big decision, I encourage any survivor to ask themselves these questions: Is your livelihood in jeopardy? Do you see your predator often? Are you safe?  Do you trust those around you to keep your confidences?

Because you should do something to get yourself justice, but you – woman or man enduring or has endured sexual predation – you deserve to be the protagonist in your own story and a not a throwaway statistic in someone else’s.  Perhaps a restraining order is for you.  Perhaps a civil suit.  Perhaps criminal charges or perhaps even a press intervention.  That needs to be considered and I recommend any nonprofit institutions advocating for victims to wear their actuarial analysis hat to calculate risk for those they advocate for.  We need to find a way to advise survivors.

As an aside, I hate that folks keep saying coming forward has done nothing.  One woman coming forward is more than zero, and two is more than one, and three is more than two.  And we are talking about this now, aren’t we?  Laws are being passed, aren’t they?  New Jersey, the women you dragged are not chopped liver.  Are you going to continue to call for women to come forward and continue to deem it meaningless?

The fact is this: though the climate is changing, it is not temperate.  And where I felt very alone when I came forward being the first in the state, women now have precedents and history with which to inform their decisions, and I and many of my sisters in this arena are here for you.  We also have the attention of our leaders at last.

As for me and my story – the big and unabridged story- as a civilian art kid at the age of 17, I named my predator – who was convicted of assaulting a minor before me.  I went to the Hudson County Sexual Assault Victim’s Assistance unit.  I had a rape kit done.  I was interviewed in a paper sheet by insensitive officers who didn’t even wait for me to dress.  I was forced to tell my story over and over and over.  Because I was the age that I was, the state could not pursue the assailant for statutory rape, though he was identified as a past offender, and over a decade older than me.  The detectives bullied me for not being able to tell the story without panic.  They decided that I couldn’t handle being on the stand and coerced my mother to sign a document saying it was ok for them to not pursue him.

My grades plummeted.  The requests to apply for scholarships dried up.  I couldn’t handle my senior year science course because it was psychology and the subject matter upset me.  I was forced to take science in summer school and was therefore not allowed to walk at my Montclair High School graduation,  which sparked questions directed at my mother up to and including parking lots and grocery stores.  I took a gap year between high school and college… and went into debt… and stress sparked illnesses in my father… and financial strain… and discord… and pain experienced by everyone in my family.

I was denied justice by a state that defined me as old enough to consent, but not old enough to *not* consent.  Above all, I am not ashamed of any of it.  I am still smart.  I am still competent, and good, and strong.

I was not raped in NJ politics, but I was harassed, grabbed, and mistreated and the only thing that saved me was a unique skillset and the reality presented to me that I had to have a high demand and low supply skillset. But because of the NJ political environment, my exposure to hostile rape forgiving environments is closing in on almost 20 years. The saddest part is that we, as agents of change, electeds and public servants, haven’t even gotten to the point where we can help everyday people receive justice for this atrocious crime.

The #metoo movement is just that: a movement.  It will not be successful if it’s done behind closed doors.  It will not be successful if the women who are taking (and not sharing) the wheel try to force women to tell their stories without precautionary measures or safe guards.  The silent treatments used against us when we speak must be met with more noise, louder noise.

We have a lot to think about and NJ has a lot to answer for, but I will reiterate points I made two years ago and add in a few more.  We should define the ability to maintain a safe environment as an asset to a team and a requirement for any job.  Job references should be co-ed.  The contracting structure of political work in NJ allows for people to abuse team members without accountability. That needs to be addressed managerially.  I am here to help if helping is what we plan to do.  Nevertheless, I am a scientist in nature and the order we do things matters.  So in this order of operations, I suggest we start caring first.

 

Editor’s note: Below is Koren Frankfort’s statement submitted to Senator Loretta Weinberg’s (D-37) ad hoc committee:

Though the state of New Jersey has fallen behind the rest of the country with respect to addressing issues  related to sexual assault, harassment and the corollary ─ political retribution against those who come forward ─ it is with a great sense of satisfaction that the ball is finally rolling.

The time after I came forward in 2017 in my InsiderNJ League of Municipalities piece, addressing the hostile sexual climate in New Jersey politics, was dark.  Met with perceivable radio silence from many of our leaders, I experienced hostility in wholly undefinable, yet easily decipherable ways.  Isolation.  Avoidance.  Gaslighting.  Veiled threats. Unveiled threats. And more.  There were colleagues who responded to my article ─ that named no one ─ with suspicion and guilty consciences, yet without remorse.  That is – in itself – the nature of sexual violence and harassment within government and politics.

Crimes where accountability is avoided and justice is evaded are usually accomplished by those who know how to work the angles.  Bad egg law makers and those that work for them are particularly astute at knowing how to get away with mistreating people because they are uniquely equipped to navigate the grey areas… not to mention the adage that many seek power to lord it over women in particular.  This makes our arena particularly dangerous for women.

Despite this, I think we are all ready to navigate these choppy waters, to address the danger and the immense damage that coming forward presents, and perhaps even to do the right thing.  Between how I was treated after my beloved god-child died – how that was seemingly utilized – and the creepy maneuvering of my once peers ─ one could say that coming forward was pyrrhic victory – a victory at too great a cost, one that could only be true if I was finished.  I am not, and I look forward to continuing to promote progress alongside the sincere and willing.  With that, a warning:  Though the perpetrators themselves are well versed at avoiding accountability, the women they have been preying upon are also makers of policy.  We are the ones paid to think ahead and know the field.  We are the ones who mapped your paths to victory, and we are ready now.

I would also like to thank Max Pizarro, my editor for giving me a platform.  Jay Lassiter for keeping the discussion going while I regrouped.  Patricia Teffenhart for always fighting and Susan Livio at NJ.com for her watchdog reporting.  This has been a movement of the press and of advocates and they made this possible.  I especially want to thank warmly Senator Weinberg for allowing me to be in this room by reading my statement and broadening this incredibly important discussion in Trenton.

Koren Frankfort is a professional political consultant and policy analyst who wrote multiple pieces on rape culture in politics beginning in 2016, when alleged rapist Donald Trump was elected president.  Her 2017 piece on the League of Municipalities, though widely distributed, did not yield the immediate call to action that was sought.  In December of 2019, the state revived the call to action in the #meToo reckoning piece, written by Susan Livio.

 

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