The biggest threat facing Gov. Eric Greitens right now might not be Missouri legislators pondering impeachment, or even a St. Louis prosecutor pressing a felony case. His biggest threat might be the era in which we live.
It’s difficult to imagine a worse time for a sitting governor to try to navigate a scandal involving alleged sexual violence than this particular moment in America’s cultural history: Pink-hatted protesters fill the streets as the #MeToo hashtag dominates social media. The Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world are, for really the first time ever, on the run.
Now isn’t when a politician wants to have to explain to his constituents the things Missouri, and America, read in legislative committee testimony about Greitens released last week.
“Events like the #MeToo movement have sensitized all of us to issues of violence against women,” says Penny Weiss, a political science professor and director of Women’s Studies at St. Louis University. “The aspects of this case that deal with nonconsensual sexual encounters are becoming more familiar to us, and so easier to oppose. Earlier, we had ways of writing it off.”
Lana Stein, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agreed. “These details,” she said, perhaps understating things, “I don’t think are going to play very well with women.”
Of course, political sex scandals are as old as politics, and marital infidelity alone is no longer considered an automatic disqualifier for officeholders today — not in an age that has seen presidents such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. When Greitens in January admitted to the extramarital affair alone, politicos like John Hancock thought he might survive.
No more. “The level of sensitivity to manipulation and abuse of women has increased,” Hancock, a former Missouri Republican Party chairman, said Friday. “This was not ‘an affair’ ... There’s no scenario in which this thing looks anything other than repulsive.”
If America today is more tolerant than ever about sex, it is less so than ever about sexual violence. And that was the new element in what Greitens’ ex-lover told a Missouri House committee in comments released last week: that he allegedly brought to their sexual encounters physical restraint, threats and, in three instances she described, slaps or shoves.
The woman also alleged instances of calculated manipulation and verbal misogyny that could cause many women to write Greitens off, regardless of what happens with the criminal case or impeachment talk.
“Every woman I’ve talked to who’s read it has been horrified,” says Jane Dueker, an attorney with longtime Democratic Party connections and a vocal critic of the Republican governor, who nonetheless declared herself surprised at the details of the latest allegations. “I’ve not found any woman who doesn’t feel that way.”
Indeed, some of the most blistering reaction has come from female Republican officeholders.
“The transcripts paint the picture of a vulnerable woman and a man who preyed on that vulnerability,” U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said in a statement last week. “I am disgusted, disheartened, and I believe Governor Greitens is unfit to lead our state.”
Several female Republican state legislators also have called on Greitens to step down.
“I think there has been something nonpartisan about the #MeToo movement,” said Weiss, the SLU professor. “The idea that this is transcending partisan boundaries ... has got transformative potential.”
Greitens, in a written statement following the release of the committee testimony Wednesday, again denied any violent or nonconsensual acts. He also expressed confidence that his upcoming criminal trial will exonerate him.
“This was an entirely consensual relationship, and any allegation of violence or sexual assault is false. This was a months-long consenting relationship between two adults,” Greitens said in the statement. “...[A] court of law and a jury of my peers will let every person in Missouri know the truth and prove my innocence.”
The court of public opinion, though, is already solidifying, in part along gender lines.
A recent Mason-Dixon poll of Greitens’ standing in Missouri found his overall approval rating is underwater, and highlighted particularly how much trouble he is in with women. It found that 54 percent of female poll respondents thought he should resign, compared to fewer than a third who thought he shouldn’t. Those were significantly worse numbers for Greitens than among men.
“The nature of the situation that (Greitens) is in certainly rubs a lot of women the wrong way,” pollster Brad Coker told the Post-Dispatch when the poll was released last week — just before the most graphic of the allegations were revealed by the committee report.
‘I was a thing to him’
Greitens, who took office less than 16 months ago, was indicted in February on a single felony charge of invasion of privacy, for allegedly snapping and transmitting a nonconsensual semi-nude photo of his hair stylist during an extramarital encounter in 2015, the year before he was elected.
As serious as any criminal charge is, the felony case against Greitens — based on an unusual application of a Missouri law, and apparently without evidence of the photo in question — might ultimately be less threatening to his immediate political future than last week’s release of the Missouri House committee transcripts.
The transcripts, of closed-door interviews with Greitens’ former lover and others, paint a picture of a man who charms, grooms and coerces a casual acquaintance into a series of sexual liaisons that eventually turn violent.
Among the allegations are that he slapped her across the face during one sexual encounter after she told him she’d had sex with her husband; that he restrained her from leaving his basement during another encounter, then pressured her to give him oral sex even though she was crying; that he touched her crotch without consent in public; and that he once “spanked” her, again without consent.
The transcripts were also filled with claims that don’t rise to the level of crimes, but — particularly in today’s environment — could be just as toxic politically as a criminal charge.
The woman claims Greitens coaxed her into coming to his St. Louis home, ostensibly to talk, but he had laid out clothing for her to wear for what was clearly a thought-out sexual encounter.
She says he bound her hands, blindfolded her and spit water into her mouth — events she said she was “confused” and “shocked” about.
At one point, she claims, he called her “a little whore.”
“He basically made it clear that he felt I was a thing to him,” the woman testified.
By the woman’s own account, she returned to engage in sexual encounters with Greitens repeatedly, even after leaving earlier encounters crying and shaken.
It’s one element of her story that might have caused wider disbelief a few years ago than now, with today’s deeper awareness of the psychological issues related to sexual violence.
“Many are questioning why this woman did not come forward, but her behavior is not atypical of those who are in abusive relationships,” said state Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, who has called for Greitens to resign.
“She was afraid of her husband and Eric Greitens. It really isn’t unusual for her not to come forward. She was in a very vulnerable state” with a husband she described as controlling, “and in that vulnerable situation, the governor took advantage of her.”
Greitens’ wife, Sheena Greitens, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has mostly stayed out of the public eye since her husband’s scandal broke open in January.
But she did make the case, during a January speech to the St. Louis Business Journal’s Women’s Conference, that Greitens’ administration has empowered women in government.
“There are more women serving in cabinet positions in Eric’s administration than in any other administration in Missouri’s history,” Sheena Greitens told the gathering, without referencing the scandal. “We all know that the gender gap in public leadership is a serious issue. Women are shaping public policy and leading public policy.”
Jack Suntrup of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.