Taylor Swift recently made headlines for an incident in which she says a radio DJ sexually assaulted her by grabbing her buttocks during a radio meet-and-greet. Her decisive, unapologetic answers set the internet abuzz.
And rightfully so. It is rare that we hear a victim of an alleged* sexual assault speak so confidently and eloquently in the face of repeated credibility jabs by experienced attorneys. That’s for a few reasons that should not go unmentioned.
(*Note: I say an “alleged” sexual assault not because I don’t believe her, but because that’s what our country’s legal system requires.)
I don’t want to take anything away from Taylor’s tenacity and strength. She rocked the questioning. She defied victim-blaming. And I truly hope that the consequences of her testimony will be far-reaching for the next generation. But before we get to the positive outcomes for young people, let’s discuss why it’s exponentially harder for most victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace to reveal details and take concrete action.
- How can I afford it? Most people can’t afford a lawyer. Just accessing the legal system is overwhelming, scary, and can cost big bucks. True, some lawyers will take on a cases on a contingency basis, but it often requires resources and education just to KNOW that you have legal rights.
- What if I lose my job? Swifty’s fan base would line up for concert seats even if “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was the full setlist. And even if fans vanish, her bank accounts would last several lifetimes. But most people are so worried about losing a dependable job that supports their families; if they were to speak up and get fired, how would they feed their families? For single mothers and low-wage workers, it’s unthinkable.
- Will my reputation suffer? Let’s face it: complaining to your boss about ANYTHING can make you sound whiny and unmotivated. But asserting that Joe from accounting rubbed up against you the wrong way can bring about all sorts of questions. (See #4). If you’re not a Grammy award winner, you worry that your colleagues and friends will view you as “thirsty” or vengeful. Or even worse, they’ll look at you as some kind of oversexed attention-grabber, even though the conduct was unwanted and unwelcome. Especially if Joe is your supervisor…or a white guy…or well-liked…or married…or powerful, or many other things.
- What if they don’t believe me? People jump to conclusions. Is she trying to get revenge against Joe for something else? Maybe she’s just looking for attention. (Yes, it says “she” because it’s most often women, though men are victims too). Maybe she has a crush on him and he deflected her advances. In Taylor’s situation, the DJ’s initiation of the lawsuit bolsters her credibility because she was simply responding. But in most situations not involving an international pop star, people question motives and assume money is the driving force.
- How can I look him in the eye again? When sexual assault or sexual harassment happens at work or in college, the survivor usually has to face the perpetrator again and again. If you make a formal complaint, it’s out in the open. He could retaliate by repeating the behavior – the worst imaginable scenario. Or by turning others against you. The idea is scary enough that many victims keep it a secret.
- What if the police get involved? People who don’t have white, heterosexual, cisgender privilege may be very scared of police involvement. Women of color, undocumented women, and trans people may harbor significant fears about law enforcement involvement. Even if you only bring a civil complaint, someone uninvitingly grabbing your butt IS a crime. Therefore, many survivors fear that police will get involved and worry about the violence, institutional discrimination, and poor outcomes for people of color in the criminal justice system. Not to mention their ability to stay in their homes and stay with their families.
- How can I even deal with that? The trauma involved with a sexual assault or repeated sexual harassment can be debilitating and life-altering. The thought of pursuing some kind of civil suit may be incomprehensible, when it’s a struggle to just get out of bed in the morning. Would you want to repeat the worst day of your life over and over?
5 Ways Taylor Swift May Change the Conversation About Sexual Assault
These are just a few of the reasons why survivors are too scared or worried to come forward. While Taylor Swift cannot eliminate these barriers or erase her own privilege, she did advance the conversation for women and our next generation.
I hope that young women and girls will be inspired by her lead, even if they face these barriers. But beyond that, I hope that the dialogue about sexual assault among girls AND boys, teens, and young adults will change.
- No, it’s not about the money. The flip side of Taylor’s wealth is that it counters any cash-grab argument. Her $1 countersuit reminds us that she doesn’t need the money. PERHAPS we’ll stop immediate assumptions that women who report sexual assault are out for an easy paycheck. Uh, yeah, not so easy.
- No, it wasn’t my responsibility to stop this. The DJ’s lawyer asked Swift if she saw it happening. What if she had (even though it was her backside)? What kind of responsibility would she have to stop it – headlock? Round-house kick? Scream? Swift put the onus right back where it belongs – on the person who she says committed the assault; not on her. PERHAPS we’ll stop asking women how they dressed and how many drinks they had and whether they’d ever kissed before.
- No, you can’t punish me for being in shock. The lawyer told Swift she could have taken a break if she were so distressed, insinuating that she’s either lying, or the butt-grab didn’t bother her that much. She turned it right back on the DJ, saying he “could have taken a normal photo” with her. When something so inappropriate happens in such a public setting, it’s often hard to process it and respond the way you would if you had time to think about it. Sexual assault is meant to control and silence the victim, which sadly often works. PERHAPS we will recognize that when someone puts their hands on you without being invited, it can have a severely chilling effect.
- No, you can’t punish me for doing my job. The lawyer extended his “women lie” and “it wasn’t that bad” strategy to Taylor Swift’s professionalism. His thinly veiled credibility attack for her ability to finish the job underestimates women’s daily experiences in the workplace. The fact that she completed the meet-and-greet doesn’t mean she wasn’t impacted; it means that, in this moment, she managed to put the expectations and hopes of her fans (a.k.a. clients) first. PERHAPS we will recognize that women have historically felt silenced and bit their tongues repeatedly for the sake of professionalism and the fear of losing income.
- This isn’t about what I did. This is about what HE did. Every time the lawyer questioned her about what SHE did or what SHE didn’t do, she swiftly (pun intended) redirected the attention back to the DJ and his actions. “I’m not going to allow you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions — not mine.” PERHAPS we will work together, men and women, to dismantle rape culture and end victim-blaming. We’ll create a world where men demand accountability from other men for their actions. A world where our children don’t define masculinity as power and control and dominance over another.
The Future of Misogyny and Racism
Some say toxic masculinity is fake or it’s made up. But the desire for control and dominance and the fear of anything “different” is typically at the heart of most oppression. We’ve witnessed more hatred and bigotry in this country in the past year and in the past few days in Charlottesville than I thought possible in my lifetime. This isn’t the pre-civil rights era; my generation is supposed to be enlightened; we’re supposed to be “woke.” So what the $*#% is happening?
Do we place our hope in the next generation? Until we teach our children to accept themselves AND other children fully for who they are, nothing will ever change.
Enough of the bigotry, racism, and sexism. Love, kindness, and acceptance are the only answers.