In first presidential election post-Me Too, survivors of sexual violence largely invisible

Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY
·11 min read
Abigail Culverhouse, 21, was raped in high school. She's seen here with her dog, Emma, who she adopted the November after her assault. "She saved me and I saved her," she said. Emma passed away at 14 this August.
Abigail Culverhouse, 21, was raped in high school. She's seen here with her dog, Emma, who she adopted the November after her assault. "She saved me and I saved her," she said. Emma passed away at 14 this August.

About six months before Donald Trump was elected president, Abigail Culverhouse was raped. She was 17, one month shy of the minimum voting age.

Culverhouse describes herself then as a bit of "a nerd," and her perpetrator as a popular boy who paid her the kind of attention that began as flattering, drifted into unsettling and ended in violence. She reported the sexual assault to law enforcement and they effectively shrugged: It's "he said, she said," they told her.

In the aftermath of her horror, the bullying began. In her suburban Virginia high school, her perpetrator's friends taunted her in class and terrorized her online. One girl, she said, chased her around the school parking lot in her car, following on her heels, then speeding up as if she were going to run her over.

Culverhouse, like so many women who experience sexual violence, not only survived her rape, but everything that came after. The vilification, the post traumatic stress disorder, the nightmares, the 2016 presidential election. She survived as the number of women accusing Donald Trump of non-consensual physical contact grew to 19. She survived while watching Christine Blasey Ford be torn apart for testifying that Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her. Culverhouse listened as family members discredited the women who came forward.

Now, in the first election in which she is old enough to vote, Culverhouse has had to survive something else: A choice between Trump, accused of a history of predatory behavior including multiple sexual assaults, his challenger Joe Biden, accused by seven women of inappropriate touching and by one of sexual assault, and Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate with no shot of winning the election.

"I cried," she said. "I really thought about what is going to be most beneficial for the country and how can I vote in a way that makes me feel like I'm making a difference. And I did vote for Biden, and I don't feel good about it. It's a literal lesser of the two evils ... which shouldn't be the election, but is."

Gender violence goes unmentioned in debates, in polls, on the trail

In the United States, one in three women experiences some form of sexual violence in her lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – those are millions of survivors who have watched as the first presidential election post-Me Too has rendered them largely invisible.

Sexual violence hasn't come up in either the presidential or vice presidential debates.

Outside of a handful of headlines, this month's anniversary of Trump's infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which he bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, came and went. Trump's latest accuser, Amy Dorris, sparked little outrage when she spoke out in The Guardian last month. Media coverage of Tara Reade, who has accused Biden of sexual assault, has been inconsistent.

"The fact that the topic doesn't come up, or that even more significantly that the topic feels clearly off limits and is maybe even perceived as a distraction, that's sending a message to survivors that is very disempowering," said Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "It's almost as if survivors are once again hearing that there's only room for their experiences to be seen and acknowledged on terms other people are comfortable with."

The election, gender experts say, is emblematic of the frustrating and often painful choices survivors are forced to make.

"When it comes to choosing a presidential candidate, we constantly have to take the violence that we have experienced and set it aside for the greater good," said C.J. Pascoe, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon who plans to vote for Biden. "And I will do that, but it means that women's experiences are still seen as our own individual problems that we have to deal with, not as a social problem that we need to reckon with."

Trump and Biden: Allegations that matter, but are unequal in scope

While Trump and Biden both stand accused of sexual assault, the allegations against Trump outnumber those against his Democratic challenger.

At least 19 women have come forward with allegations against Trump that include sexual assault and rape. Last year prominent writer E. Jean Carroll publicly accused Trump of raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s and brought a defamation case against him after he allegedly slandered her in denying her claims. On Wednesday, oral arguments begin in Carroll's case.

In the series "I Moved On Her Very Heavily" (a Trump quote) for The Atlantic that has been running since the summer, Carroll interviewed other Trump accusers, though it hasn't received the attention advocates say the subject matter deserves.

Trump has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, often insulted the women who have come forward and claimed he did not know them even when there was photographic or video evidence to the contrary. He has also mocked the Me Too movement at his rallies.

During the second presidential debate in 2016, Anderson Cooper addressed the Access Hollywood tape: “What you said was locker room banter – kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals – that is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women.”

Trump stood firm: “I don’t think you understood. This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. To the American people. Certainly, I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.”

However, some women say it's not just talk.

“When he says that thing, ‘Grab them in the pussy,’ that hits me hard because when he grabbed me and pulled me into the tapestry, that’s where he grabbed me ― he grabbed me there in my front and pulled me in," Karen Johnson, a Mar-a-Lago party guest, told journalists in 2019.

Until April, accusations against Biden involved him touching women in ways that made them uncomfortable. In response, Biden said that “social norms have begun to change” and he would be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”

But in April Reade, a former Biden staffer when he was a senator, accused him of sexually assaulting her in the basement of a Capitol Hill office building in the spring of 1993. Biden’s campaign denied the allegations.

Records on women's issues

The credibility of accusations is not the only thing survivors are weighing. They're looking at the candidates' records, which diverge sharply.

Under the Trump administration, Title IX protections for survivors on college campuses have been weakened. Biden has said he would reverse Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' rule bolstering protections for those accused of campus sexual assault.

However, supporters of Trump will point to his hiring of women in his businesses. Supporters of Biden will point to his support for the Violence Against Women Act.

National polls show Biden consistently leading Trump among women voters. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from Oct. 6-9, finds Biden has a 23 point lead among women. Currently, women favor Biden by a 53%-40% margin, according to Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll out Monday.

A post-Me Too disappointment

Valuing survivors would mean making sexual violence a part of the national dialogue even when it may seem politically inconvenient, Palumbo said. Survivors come forward because they want to end cycles of abuse, harm and silence. They aren't just soundbites. They aren't political footballs, she said.

Angela Unterbrink, 45, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, a survivor of domestic violence, says she has been appalled by the Trump administration's treatment of women.

"It perpetuates the [idea] that that type of behavior is widely accepted," she said.

Unterbrink said watching Trump during the presidential debate last month was triggering.

"It was a very narcissistic, visceral feel of a man purely out to intimidate and devalue and abuse somebody who he feels is a lesser human being. That was the bottom line," she said. "It was not, 'OK, I have these amazing policies and I have an exalted viewpoint of how I'm going to fix the world and bring change to a nation that needs it.' It was, 'I'm a bully, I am going to exert my manliness and authority over this person that I perceive is weaker than me and I'm going to do that by devaluing them in any capacity that I can.'"

When the Access Hollywood tape leaked four years ago, many Americans thought it would sink Trump's candidacy.

In the years since, more and more women have come forward to accuse powerful men of sexual violence, risking their reputations, forfeiting their privacy and rehashing their traumas. A year after the election, the social media movement Me Too exploded, demanding that people pay attention, insisting that survivors be recognized by the public, political leaders, co-workers, friends, neighbors and even family.

But women who took part in or bore witness to the initial burst of energy have faced repeated disappointments at critical moments.

Culverhouse said she was horrified by the public's treatment of Ford, who in 2018 came forward with allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15 and he was 17. Kavanaugh denies the attack and the FBI reported it found "no corroboration of the allegations."

Ford faced doxxing and death threats. She and her family were forced to move and she was unable to go back to her job as a psychology professor at Palo Alto University.

"The person who hurt me wasn't found guilty either, but I still know they did it," Culverhouse said. "If you're sexually assaulted, and you're not beaten black and blue and holding on for dear life, it didn't happen. I know people who were also sexually assaulted, and like myself, didn't come out beaten. We just did what we had to do to get through a terrible moment, just to get out. I know personally it was like an out-of-body experience. Just get through it and then leave and don't die."

Ford said when Kavanaugh was assaulting her, he covered her mouth and she thought he "would accidentally kill me."

More people may be paying attention to sexual violence than before the last election, but experts say the nation is not behaving in ways that show it's willing to change how it treats those who survive that violence. The start of the primary season included a number of highly qualified female candidates, but in the end came down to two men who have both been accused of sexual assault.

For survivors, a lifetime of difficult choices

Survivors always face difficult choices, sexual violence experts say. Whether to report or not, whether to disclose or not. The election is just another example of the difficult decisions survivors must make.

"This is a part of survivors' experiences that is often not recognized, because people think about there being a few discrete decisions that a survivor has to make in ... the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault. But in reality, it's that they have an experience that fundamentally impacts them as a person, and their future, and their way of being in the world," Palumbo said. "Everyday decisions, as well as those significant turning points that we all have in our lives – they're shaped as well by their experience of being a survivor."

Culverhouse, now 21 and a senior at James Madison University, co-founded Students Against Sexual Violence, an advocacy group for survivors. She says she wants to be a voice for survivors who can't use theirs. Or who simply haven't found them yet.

"All of these women who are saying, 'hey, the president, this Supreme Court nominee, this man in power did something to me and abused his power and hurt me,' and then they're just brushed off ... I personally feel it," she said. "I'm not just somebody's sister. I'm not just somebody's girlfriend. I am a whole person. I have myself together and it's despite the fact that someone decided my body was their play thing. ... And I will do everything in my power to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else."

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online and receive confidential support.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump or Biden? A painful election for survivors of sexual violence.