Taylor Swift’s sexual assault trial is a reminder that victim-blaming transcends celebrity
One of the most famous women in the world recently took the stand in her own sexual assault trial, and much of the public’s response has been, to say the least, disheartening. Taylor Swift alleges that DJ David Mueller groped her bare butt during a meet-and-greet event in 2013, and civil court proceedings are currently underway. Despite what many people have recently said, Swift’s trial and testimony matter — and it has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a celebrity.
It matters because when she took the stand Swift stood up for herself like a badass — and she deserves credit for that.
And it matters because the trial illustrates two major issues in our culture: a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes sexual assault, and the way we treat victims if we don’t “like” them.
I’ve heard and seen many comments claiming that “sexual assault” is too strong and dramatic a term to describe what allegedly happened to Swift. But the incident she describes — one of unwanted fondling or sexual touching — is legally a form of sexual assault.
Far too many people don’t recognize that sexual violence takes many different forms. They tip-toe around the topic because addressing the complexities of assault isn’t fun or easy.
As a result, many don’t understand that rape isn’t the only form of sexual violence.
As a teenager, I dropped my phone on a bus in London. I leaned over to pick it up, and a man reached up my skirt and grabbed my crotch. The bus was packed, but no one said a word. I was furious and humiliated — but I didn’t call it sexual assault because I didn’t think it was.
Nearly every woman I know has a similar story: We were on a crowded subway car or at a nightclub and a stranger grabbed us with no consent whatsoever. We didn’t call it sexual assault, but it was.
We need to call a spade a spade, because dismissing these forms of sexual assault directly feeds into rape culture.
These crimes don’t occur in a vacuum and rape culture is very real, despite what both liberal and conservative men have tried to tell me. Men are emboldened when they grab women in public and face no repercussions. They’re emboldened when they watch other men engage in this form of assault without consequence. They absorb the message that they’re entitled to take our bodies and do with them what they please.
Swift has received very little public support from people who have previously stood up for sexual assault survivors. It’s no secret that she is disliked by some, and that lends, apparently, to her being construed as unworthy of support during this difficult time.
We need to understand that Swift is not the “perfect victim.” Like many others, I’ve been troubled by her flawed brand of white feminism, and yes, she’s made missteps in the public eye — but this is irrelevant to her sexual assault case. I’m not saying we should suddenly let Swift off the hook for previous missteps; I’m not saying that, overnight, she has turned into the perfect feminist role model.
A sexual assault trial isn’t the place or time to judge a woman based on her prior actions. We don’t all need to suddenly become Swift’s biggest fans. But if we want to call ourselves feminists and allies, we do need to offer our support to each and every woman who endures a sexual assault and a painful trial.
We can acknowledge that Swift has been an imperfect feminist and simultaneously give her credit for the empowering way she’s handled herself during this trial.
But this is about far more than just Swift — it’s about how we treat the women and men in our lives who have been assaulted. Swift’s fanbase consists of millions of young, impressionable girls.
As these young girls follow the trial and read people's comments, I'm deeply concerned about the message they're absorbing: If people don't like you, your sexual assault doesn't matter.
When we harp on Swift’s past indiscretions, we put the alleged victim on trial rather than the alleged perpetrator. Are we seriously only going to stand up for the survivors who we deem “worthy”? What exactly is the litmus test for a victim who deserves our support and empathy? How many missteps are we allowed to take before it’s okay for someone to sexually assault us?
So, yes, I’m deeply troubled that young girls and women are hearing or reading comments that suggest Swift doesn’t deserve our support, and that what she has alleged happened to her wasn’t really sexual assault. But I’m also encouraged by the example she set when it was time to take the stand for her cross-examination.
Swift refused to let herself be victim-blamed and she didn’t let Mueller’s attorney, Gabe McFarland, twist her words around.
McFarland posited that she could have “taken a break” if she was indeed so upset.
“Your client could have taken a normal photo with me," she responded. When asked if she was "critical" of her bodyguard for not intervening, Swift stayed on topic: "I’m critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass."
McFarland then attempted to shame Swift by asking if she had any feelings about McFarland losing his job due to the incident.
"I’m not going to let 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," Swift responded.
Most sexual assault cases don’t go to trial, so the majority of us won’t be faced with a cross-examination like Swift’s. And, if we are, it likely won’t be national news because we’re not celebrities. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from Swift’s responses. Many of us have been on the receiving end of statements that are either dismissive, victim-blaming, or both. It’s easy for us to become shaken up and backtrack, or just drop it altogether — I’ve certainly done this.
I hope that if we learn anything from this trial, it’s that we all have the right to stand up for ourselves in the manner Swift did — whether we’re being questioned by a lawyer, a friend, or an acquaintance.
I hope that we all think twice before we make judgements about a person’s assault based on whether or not we like them.
There are myriad reasons victims don’t report sexual assault, but the fear of being victim-blamed or even laughed at is certainly one of them. The legal system frequently fails sexual assault survivors, but so does our society. The dialogue surrounding sexual assault needs to change, and we can all play a role in achieving this goal.