An entire nation hears a man brag about sexually assaulting women. That man says on national television, while millions watch, that they were “just words.” Women come forward to say that that man assaulted them. The women are immediately called liars by a presidential campaign, its high-profile surrogates, and a chunk of the American public.
Welcome to 2016.
In the hours after four women ― Jessica Leeds, Rachel Crooks, Mindy McGillivray and Natasha Stoynoff ― publicly (and separately) accused Donald Trump of groping or kissing them without consent, the backlash was swift. As is often the case when women come forward with accusations of sexual assault, these four women were branded liars motivated by a desire for attention and political gain. If they waited to tell their stories publicly, goes this narrative, they must be making them up.
“We live in a world where female victims of sexual violence are first and foremost assumed to be liars, out to get the men they say abused them.”
The Trump campaign called The New York Times piece, which included Leeds and Crooks’ stories, “fiction,” and reportedly threatened to sue individual women who make claims against Trump. Trump himself went on Twitter to rage against Stoynoff, Leeds and Crooks. “TOTAL FABRICATION,” he typed in all caps.
#NextFakeTrumpVictim began trending Wednesday night into Thursday morning on Twitter, filled with sentiments like, “If your a sexually assaulted and don’t come forward you are part of the problem and you allow yourself to be a victim (sic),” and “These paid actors will come from everywhere. Why wait until now?”
Trump advisor and former columnist AJ Delgado told Chris Hayes that “any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”
Conservative radio host John Fredericks called the allegations “pretty suspicious,” asking why there were “no witnesses.” “Nobody ever went to their human resources department,” he said. “Who does this?”
Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” expressed skepticism about the timing of the allegations, saying that he would have come forward sooner. “If I had been sexually harassed by this man — the Megyn Kelly story would have given me an opportunity,” he said.
Fox’s Lou Dobbs tweeted to his 792,000 followers what appears to be the personal information of one of Trump’s alleged victims.
People wonder why women hesitate to come forward with accusations of sexual assault. This is why.
There are no “perks” of publicly accusing someone of sexual violence ― beyond the vague hope of justice. Coming forward means reliving trauma, uncovering memories that may have been buried for years. It means facing the potential skepticism of friends, family, the media, law enforcement and the court system. It means being called a liar ― and much worse. It usually means walking away with nothing. (After all, even being a “famous” victim, doesn’t come with some mythical giant paycheck.)
These women knew all of that. They knew that if and when they came forward, Trump would likely target them directly on social media ― as he did Megyn Kelly and Alicia Machado and the Khan family. They knew their stories would be picked apart, that people would wonder why they waited to speak up and why Trump would choose to assault them. They knew that in the context of a contentious presidential campaign, they would be branded as stooges of the Clinton campaign. They knew they would be told that their alleged trauma was a distraction from the “real issues.”
And yet Leeds, Crooks, McGillivray and Stoynoff did come forward, spurred by indignation that, when pressed by Anderson Cooper, Trump had explicitly denied he had ever “done those things.” McGillivray told the Palm Beach Post that “she rose from her couch and yelled at the TV screen: ‘You liar!’” Leeds told the NYTimes: “I wanted to punch the screen.”
It bears repeating: Donald Trump has a long, well-documented history of misogyny. He has consistently shown disdain for women as human beings. And he has been recorded bragging about “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” and how he “just start[s] kissing them,” remarking that “when you’re a star they let you do it.”
“Men are given the benefit of the doubt so completely that even hearing a man say he kisses and gropes women without their consent is not enough to believe it.”
It’s not unreasonable to think that a man who has explicitly bragged about sexually assaulting women may have, in fact, sexually assaulted women. And that, when faced with Trump’s explicit denial that he had ever done such a thing, women might feel compelled to speak up.
Except that we live in a rape culture.
We live in a world where women are taught to brush off their assaults as the inevitable consequence of existing in a female body.
We live in a world where sexual assaults are underreported, and where attackers are rarely punished.
We live in a world where famous men routinely get away with groping women by virtue of their status ― and the fear that status invokes in their victims.
We live in a world where female victims of sexual violence are first and foremost assumed to be liars, out to get the men they say abused them.
We live in a world where men are given the benefit of the doubt so completely that even hearing a man say he kisses and gropes women without their consent is not enough to believe it.
If you’re looking for a reason that women decide to bury their trauma instead of report it, this is it.
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