July 3, 2019

We need to think about what we say regarding sexual abuse allegations

Originally published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.

On June 21, columnist E. Jean Carroll published an excerpt from her new memoir, What Do We Need Men For?, in New York magazine, alleging a violent assault by President Trump more than 20 years ago in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room. She joins more than 20 women who have publicly accused President Trump of sexual misconduct, with accusations ranging from inappropriate sexual advances to rape.

Trump denied the allegations, telling reporters from The Hill, “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”

That he responded so cavalierly to something as serious as rape — denying it on the grounds of how attractive he finds her — points to a much larger cultural problem. Sexual abuse and misconduct on the part of powerful men (Trump is by no means the only one) has become a regular fixture of the political landscape — so much so that they fail to provoke adequate outrage. A former White House official told The Atlantic, “I didn’t read it, we’re just kind of numb to it all at this point.”

Yet while White House officials and political pundits may be numb, we should stop to ask what sort of impact this has on those who have experienced sexual assault and/or rape, and how survivors are supposed to navigate a world where they are being bombarded with news that forces them to constantly confront these conversations.

Last week, I posed this question to Jane (name has been changed to protect her privacy), who responded with her own story of sexual assault. For her, one of the more difficult things about these seemingly commonplace allegations is having to listen to people around her discuss them.

“Sexual allegations in the news solicit opinions and comments from others that can feel deeply personal,” she says. “Hearing someone say that a woman is speaking out against an accuser to ruin his life, or suggesting that she is some way deserves the assault, really hurts.”

The fact that most survivors do not share their stories with acquaintances and coworkers, and often not even with those close to them, means that in any given group there are likely to be survivors who feel implicated by the conversation.

“I can’t help but project [the comments of others onto] my own situation,” Jane says. “It feels like people you know are casting judgment against you, albeit unknowingly.”

Dr. Nancy Fair, who has a private psychotherapy practice in Pittsburgh, says that while this may feel isolating, Jane is not alone in her feelings.

“After all of these years, people still blame women, and this is not okay,” says Fair.

This is clear from Trump’s own statement. He doesn’t talk about the seriousness of rape, or that doing so would be inconsistent with his character; instead, he says she isn’t his type, and he didn’t happen to do it. Of her patients, Dr. Fair says, “They feel unsafe because they know if something happens, they will be blamed.”

While it would be easy to say that those who feel triggered by the news should try to limit their exposure to it, this obviously doesn’t solve the larger issue of how to navigate the social world where sexual assault has become part of public discourse. And importantly, it puts the onus on survivors to change their behavior in order to protect themselves, once again blaming the victim. Instead, we need to collectively take responsibility for how we deal with and talk about sexual assault in our culture.

While the #MeToo movement opened up space for survivors to begin to tell their stories, we need to carry this through to real structural change regarding how we relate to and treat each other, and what we expect from our politicians. This should start with becoming un-numb, and taking the stories of survivors seriously.