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We need to change warped thinking on sexual assault

By Karen Baker

Chief Executive Officer


Originally published in LNP | Lancaster Online on June 30, 2019.

“She’s not my type.”

That’s what the sitting president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, said when asked about E. Jean Carroll’s accusation of sexual assault in the 1990s — as if it would be some badge of honor to have been his type.

Carroll, a longtime writer of an advice column for Elle magazine, describes the incident in an excerpt of her memoir published on New York magazine’s website. Carroll says Trump pushed her up against a department store dressing room wall in the mid-1990s, pulled down her tights, unzipped his pants and penetrated her.

Trump’s response to the vivid picture she shared wasn’t that he would never rape someone. He didn’t preach about the seriousness of sexual assault. Or even simply give the empathic denial we hear so often in sexual abuse cases.

He instead inferred that some women, and this woman in particular, aren’t worthy of being sexually assaulted. His response not only normalizes rape by conflating it with sexual attraction, but also by positioning sexual assault as something of which one might be worthy. It is a glaring example of just how accepted this sort of warped and dangerous thinking is in America.

This isn’t the first time the nation has heard a high-profile person accused of sexual abuse attempt to redirect the conversation by suggesting the woman reporting the abuse in essence wasn’t pretty enough to be sexually assaulted. That type of response — one that is common and rooted in misogynist thinking — characterizes women only as sexual objects.

Numerous news outlets have observed that the nation doesn’t seem all that shocked by the allegations against the president or by his responses to those allegations.

We are among those who are beyond shocked. We are outraged. This isn’t just about Trump. It’s about the larger picture painted when we struggle to be shocked as cases of sexual harassment, abuse or assault reach daylight over and over again.

We’re also outraged that the bigger picture Carroll describes — a life filled with people who sought to sexually abuse her — has not sparked analysis about just how common these experiences are in the lives of American women.

We’re outraged because Carroll’s story — one she courageously told despite the tsunami of backlash she predicted she would receive (and has) — is one that could easily be told by thousands of American women across the country.

Women in America — women of all shapes and sizes, ages and ethnicities — must grow up with the ever-present risks of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

Carroll’s account of her life — highlighted by the “21 most revolting scoundrel” list she curated as the nation was roiled by the #MeToo wave — details sexual harassment, attempted and completed sexual assaults, and other sexual abuse.

Her lived experience is alarmingly common, as is the reaction she has gotten since going public with her memory of the incident involving Trump.

That’s what outrages us most.

We are shocked at the stubborn refusal of the general public to accept the facts about how sexual assault happens. It almost always happens without witnesses or documentation — because the assailant planned it that way. It is normal, common and, in fact, a hallmark of real sexual assault that it is the victim’s word against the denial of the person who committed the abuse. It is normal, common and another hallmark of real sexual assault that the victim delays reporting it because of fear of public scrutiny, of retaliation by the perpetrator or others, and of loss of support.

This is why Carroll says she waited so long to go public about Trump’s assault: “Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud ... never sounded like much fun.” (All of that happened to Christine Blasey Ford after she testified against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It’s a litany of torment that will be familiar to other women, too.)

Sexual assault is a serious and widespread problem. And what we say and do about it matters.

Last week’s high-profile story — just like all of the others before it — illustrates a need for change across our culture in order to end sexual assault and create a society of respect, safety and equality. And not just in response to high-profile cases. There needs to be a cultural change in how we react to sexual abuse in our own communities, what we do to prevent future instances of abuse and how we teach our children to actively build healthy relationships founded on respect.

Together, we will end sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.