During Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump denied accusations of sexual assault against him by, in part, suggesting that the women accusing him were seeking their “their 10 minutes of fame.”
You don’t have to have experienced the attention that public rape accusations can bring to realize it’s not the kind of attention anyone would ever want. But, in a way, I have experienced it.
In 2011, I was launching a website with publishing legend Jane Pratt, who had previously created Sassy and Jane Magazines. The very first first piece that I published on the new site was an interview with my adolescent rapist, written after he had attempted to friend me on Facebook.
I was assaulted by a group of teenage boys when I was 14, and I’d spent the following decade both blaming myself for it, and attempting to destroy myself with drugs and alcohol. Then three years sober, at 28, I was working through the trauma for the very first time in therapy, and I had questions about what had happened to me.
At the time, the notion of being contacted by a perpetrator through social media was fairly new, and I found myself in the unique position of being able to ask those questions directly of one of the men involved in my assault.
So after a lot of input from my therapist, I had a conversation with him, which ended up being intensely therapeutic, if only because he verified my memories and justified my pain. I wrote about it because I wanted to show the thinking behind sexual assault, and that those who commit it are not monsters, but people we know and interact with every day.
Although I didn’t name my assailant, I effectively went public as a victim of sexual assault the day that article was published.
The scale of the reaction was not, of course, in line with what happens when a woman comes out about being assaulted by a presidential candidate or major celebrity. But as the story began to be picked up by other media outlets, I was asked to appear on various radio and television programs to speak about my experience. The culmination was probably when I flew to LA to appear on “The Dr. Phil Show.”
But even before that, my story started to serve as a lightening rod for people’s (mostly ignorant) opinions about rape. People felt free to question the veracity of my story ― to try to poke holes in the details or criticize my tone.
“This story just doesn’t ring true,” wrote one Daily Mail commenter on The Daily Mail’s coverage of my story.
“Sounds like she was a willing participant to at least some degree,” wrote another.
“How do you know he raped her?” wrote yet another. “Just because she said so?”
One of my favorite comments from that time said, “While I 100% understand that there is really no grey area when it comes to rape, this isn’t really a case of ‘man attacks random woman on the street, rapes her, and leaves.’ This is more of a ‘girl is drunk with a bunch of men she KNOWS and says ‘no, stop’ but they don’t listen.’”
This is, of course, the literal definition of rape.
After I went on NPR to discuss my story, several commenters suggested that because I had laughed during my segment, I obviously hadn’t really been raped.
Strangers critiqued my tattoos and “provocative poses” in the photos that writers grabbed from my Facebook for their articles, and accused me of trying to get attention for the website I worked for by making up a false rape claim. They questioned whether I had been drinking or using drugs while I was assaulted. I was told that if I had “really” been raped I would have “sent my rapist to jail” rather than writing about it, never mind the fact that this was a 14-year-old crime and that very few rapists are ever actually prosecuted, even when there is much more evidence than I had readily available.
Today, some of these comments are so wrong-headed that they seem almost comical to me, but at the time, dealing with this kind of backlash was a legitimate danger to my mental health.
So when I received a request from “The Dr. Phil Show” to fly from New York to LA to film a segment on my story, I had extreme reservations. I knew Dr. Phil was known for his “tough love” approach and I was afraid of what his angle might be. The producers also wanted to reach out to my assailant, which I refused.
While I believed strongly in speaking out about my rape as a way to help other women, the thought of going on television to do so made me queasy. I decided to do so only because the very fact that so many people were questioning my story made me realize how important it was to tell the truth about what rape really looks like most of the time.
For the most part, women are raped in situations like mine, by men they know, not by strangers jumping out of the bushes with a weapon. But the prevailing cultural narrative of rape as a dark-alley scenario persists, teaching women to blame ourselves when we’re raped on a date, by a friend, while we’re drunk, when we didn’t “fight hard enough.”
Everything about your life, your appearance, your history, and the way you process trauma becomes open to vitriol and criticism, because some people will still use any excuse not to believe women.
I talk and write about my rape because women need to be able to identify these commonplace experiences as rape, and because they need to know that it isn’t their fault. Sometimes I do this at the expense of my own well-being.
Luckily, my experience appearing on Dr. Phil was everything I could have hoped for. He was respectful, not too sensationalistic, and he gave me the perfect opportunity to spread my message by asking what I would tell a 14-year-old girl who was in my situation. The messages I received from women who were helped by seeing my episode when it aired ultimately justified the decision for me.
Video from my segment doesn’t seem to be online anymore. Still, as you can see from my face in the screenshot at the top of this post, I was so rattled I felt like I was going to vomit the whole time. I had an actual panic attack in the green room when I was asked to sign some last-minute paperwork that included a clause saying the producers could bring on any additional guest without informing me. A producer had to come down to personally assure me my rapist was not in the building.
Talking about sexual assault in our society is traumatizing. There’s no other word for it. By doing so, you open yourself up to a barrage of hate and put yourself on public trial. Everything about your life, your appearance, your history, and the way you process trauma becomes open to vitriol and criticism, because some people will still use any excuse not to believe women.
And yet every time someone steps forward to accuse a famous man of assault ― whether it’s Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, or the pro-athlete of the week ― they’re accused of doing it for the attention.
My “10 minutes of fame” felt like one long panic attack. I wouldn’t wish that kind of attention on anyone.
So no, Donald Trump, I don’t believe that any woman comes out about sexual assault because she wants the attention.
We do it despite the attention, even when it hurts.
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.