Sunday night gave us, at last, the airing of the much-discussed “60 Minutes” interview with Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels. Anderson Cooper said that Clifford shared “tawdry” details about her alleged affair with the man who is now the president, but they were ultimately cut from the interview (and for that, we are all grateful).
Instead, the focus of what viewers saw was the main bullet points of the “relationship”: what happened, what happened next and what happens now.
According to Clifford, the long-alleged “affair” amounted to one sexual encounter, one she stated multiple times was wholly consensual. She does not identify as a victim or a survivor of assault. But Clifford’s description of what went through her mind as she decided to have that sex probably sounded very familiar to people who do.
Anderson Cooper: Did you two go out for dinner that night?
Stephanie Clifford: No.
Cooper: You had dinner in the room?
Cooper: What happened next?
Clifford: I asked him if I could use his restroom and he said, “Yes, you know, it’s through those ― through the bedroom, you’ll see it.” So I ― I excused myself and I went to the ― the restroom. You know, I was in there for a little bit and came out and he was sitting, you know, on the edge of the bed when I walked out, perched.
Cooper: And when you saw that, what went through your mind?
Clifford: I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, “Ugh, here we go.” (Laughs) And I just felt like maybe ― (Laughs) it was sort of ― I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, “Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.”
Cooper: And you had sex with him.
Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?
Cooper: Not at all?
Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?
Clifford: No. But I didn’t ― I didn’t say no. I’m not a victim, I’m not ―
Cooper: It was entirely consensual.
Clifford: Oh, yes, yes.
Trump did not force himself on Clifford. Her experience is different from what Ivana Trump described as “rape” in a deposition in the early ’90s, or those of the women who’ve come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. He did not threaten her safety, nor did anyone threaten her on his behalf (that would allegedly come later). But that voice in your head that says, ”You put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this” is one that too many women will recognize.
Women are socialized to prioritize male comfort, to avoid humiliating or disappointing men, especially in sexual situations. We are to be amenable, gracious. Early on, long before we ever have our first sexual encounters, we know from television and movies that our role in sexual relationships with men is to say things like “Size doesn’t matter” and “It happens to all guys.” We would watch ”Grease” as children, singing along to lyrics like “Did she put up a fight?” The idea that good girls say “no” until they can be convinced otherwise soaked into our beings like a certain fluid into another touchstone for those of who were preteens at that moment: Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
“Women are socialized to prioritize male comfort, to avoid humiliating or disappointing men, especially in sexual situations.”
During that presidential sex scandal media frenzy, those of us who were old enough to understand late-night jokes were also old enough to understand that women who engaged in “sexual relations” with powerful men are just as at fault as the men themselves. Perhaps they were even more at fault. Certainly they were more deserving of ridicule and mockery, marked as they were in some Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque way.
Where power dynamics are as skewed and slanted as they were in that case, there can be no real consent. But for women from Lewinsky to Clifford, and all those women and nonbinary people in between and beyond, whatever bastardized version of consent is given, there is still punishment to be had ― for the woman.
Girls and women learn early that sex is a punishable offense, whether we wanted it or not. We learn it from horror movies where only the virgin survives, and from our politics, where “pro-life” protesters call women “whores” while watching them enter the local Planned Parenthood. Rape, infections, even children are the punishment we deserve when we consent to sex, no matter how tenuous and coerced that consent was. After all, “you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.”
Clifford may not be a victim. She was not raped or assaulted by Donald Trump. But her story is a story about rape culture. It is a story about the ways women are pressured into sex that is still ― technically, legally ― consensual.
“It a story about the ways women are pressured into sex that is still ― technically, legally ― consensual.”
Over the course of the Me Too movement, much has been made about whether or not it’s been taken “too far,” with phrases like “witch hunt” and “mob rule” thrown about. Those phrases are usually used by powerful men who have remained powerful in the months since the Harvey Weinstein news first broke and will remain powerful long after.
The waters, these men tend to claim, have been muddied. The truth is, they have been muddied by the very notion that they were clear enough to have been muddied at all — the notion that there is a set of criteria for what constitutes a “victim,” and if an accuser’s experience falls short of that, then the real victim is the man being accused. This is the dynamic we have watched unfold in the wake of allegations against Aziz Ansari, whose accuser was lambasted for failing to be a “true victim” of assault. Ansari’s only crime, one columnist insisted, was failing to be a “mind reader.”
The irony is that these are all things every victim or survivor has already said to themselves. Clifford herself makes the distinction between her experience with Trump and the experiences of “true” victims.
“A lotta people are using you for a lotta different agendas,” Cooper said. “They’re trying to,” she replied. “Like, oh, you know, Stormy Daniels comes out #MeToo. This is not a ‘Me Too.’ I was not a victim. I’ve never said I was a victim. I think trying to use me to ― to further someone else’s agenda, does horrible damage to people who are true victims.” Most victims and survivors do not need columnists and concerned men to tell us that our experiences don’t count: we’ve absorbed enough of rape culture to fear that ourselves.
It is thanks to the Me Too and Time’s Up movements that we are, at last, having a cultural conversation about issues that feed into sexual assault and harassment — phenomena like internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity and entitlement. It is thanks to those movements also that we are collectively exploring what it means to be a victim or a survivor, whether you identify as one or not.
Beyond what so many men do and are capable of doing, rape culture exists inside of us. It’s that voice that whispers that we deserve this, that we got ourselves into this and should just get it over with. It’s that voice that needles us in the moment to do things we don’t want to do in order to prevent someone else from feeling uncomfortable. The voice that insists after the fact that because it wasn’t that bad, we are not victims at all. You put yourself in this situation, and bad things just ... happened.