Advice columnist E. Jean Carroll on Friday publicly accused President Donald Trump of raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s. When news of the story first broke, media coverage and public commentary was muted.
In a detailed excerpt from her upcoming memoir, “What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal,” published in New York magazine on Friday, Carroll says Trump pinned her against a wall, pulled down her tights and penetrated her. Trump over the weekend repeatedly denied the allegation — as he's done with the 19 other women who have accused him of sexual misconduct — claiming, “I’ve never met this person in my life."
A picture in New York magazine shows Trump and Carroll together at a 1987 party.
Readers, media watchdogs and reporters pointed out coverage of the accusation was subdued compared with previous sexual harassment and assault allegations against Trump, despite Carroll being the first woman whose accusation meets the legal definition of rape. (Ex-wife Ivana Trump said he raped her in a divorce deposition but later said she didn't mean it in a legal sense.)
Major TV networks did not feature the Carroll story prominently in their lineups. USA TODAY published its first report on the allegations Saturday afternoon.
I am stunned (not) that this is not all over cable news. Crickets. That's where we are now. The so-called President of the United States is credibly accused of rape, (again) and... meh.— Barbara Davis, author (@bdavisauthor) June 21, 2019
Today, the president was accused of rape by a writer who’s been a household name since I was a child. It didn’t crack the home screen of the major news sites. Take the frog out, she’s boiled. pic.twitter.com/0P4CtHg3Te— Melinda Taub (@MelindaTaub) June 22, 2019
"At this point, both in terms of #MeToo and knowing the other allegations against Trump, this is not information that some people find surprising or unexpected anymore," said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
In many cases, the #MeToo stories that have received the most attention are the ones that have surprised the public, even if in Hollywood it was considered an open secret. After almost two years of #MeToo stories, what was once a deluge has slowed to more of a trickle, always there but ignored in its monotony.
"One of the reasons that some of the media coverage might have been stifled is around this question of whether America has reached #MeToo fatigue. ... #MeToo has been about as a society coming to the realization that sexual harassment and abuse are commonplace experiences for women. ... The challenge is, the more that sexual harassment and assault is normalized, the more it can take away some of the outrage, and that may be what's diluting some of the response," Palumbo said.
'Why didn't she come forward before now?'
In Carroll's case, reasons people are dismissing her claim could also contribute to why there isn't more outcry over it.
Carroll has been criticized for not coming forward when Trump was hit by a wave of sexual-assault accusations in October 2016.
What a joke.. 23 years ago and now is the time for this article to come out.. I think NOT.. another futile attempt and hoax— InsiderTraining Inc® (@DrewMichaelNYC) June 22, 2019
“When a survivor comes out and makes an accusation ... the societal response in general is to deny this accusation, then to accuse the survivor of coming out for all the wrong reasons or lying or being crazy,” said Joan Cook, a Yale psychiatry professor who specializes in trauma. "Most people, it takes them years to tell anyone."
Carroll, who shared the alleged assault with two close friends at the time, wrote that she was afraid to go public.
"Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested, and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten, and attack them, never sounded like much fun," she said. "Also, I am a coward."
Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, was threatened, harassed and forced out of her home and away from her children after coming forward, her lawyers said.
Critics of Ford's story, including Trump, said the timing of the allegations was suspicious. Rumors spread online that Ford might have been paid or motivated by Democrats. In his statement on Friday, Trump intimated Carroll was, too.
Experts on sexual assault say it's clear to survivors there's always a price to pay for coming forward.
"There is an idea of strength in numbers, but they're also seeing the scrutiny that a person faces when they come forward — being slammed in comments, receiving threats, their character being highly criticized," Palumbo said.
'She is trying to sell a new book'
Some downplayed Carroll's accusation because she made it in her new book, which critics called a tactical move to boost sales.
"She is trying to sell a new book — that should indicate her motivation," Trump said.
However, she's not the first writer to disclose sexual abuse in a memoir:
- In 2019, Common opened up in "Let Love Have the Last Word" about being sexually assaulted as a child.
- In 2018, Sally Field wrote in "In Pieces" about the sexual abuse she experienced from her stepfather until she was 14.
- In 2017, writer Roxane Gay wrote that she was a childhood victim of sexual violence in her memoir "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body."
- In 2016, comedian Amy Schumer described her first sexual experience in her book, "The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo", writing, "He was penetrating me. Without asking first, without kissing me, without so much as looking me in the eyes — or even confirming if I was awake."
"I think oftentimes, the place that the public and the media go is to thinking this is something someone is disclosing because of what they have to gain — to sell more copies," Palumbo said. "But for a lot of survivors, a book is really an opportunity to tell their story on their own terms."
Politics makes allegations even messier
In an interview with The Washington Post, Carroll said, “This is not political. Sexual violence is not political.”
But when accusations of sexual assault are entered against a politician, partisan divides can silence victims and supporters.
No shot this happened. Makes me wonder how much the @DNC is paying her to say this— Creamala Harris (@CreamyJihadist) June 22, 2019
"People are really perplexed with how to deal with these stories within the political landscape," Palumbo said. "It really challenges people in the media and in the public when politicians face allegations — they are some of the most polarizing stories."
Part of this has to do with "tribe" mentality, which can blind people to behaviors they would otherwise abhor.
In 2017, the Alabama Republican Party stood behind Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused by multiple women of making inappropriate sexual advances. Some of the women accused Moore of pursuing relationships with them while he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.
Ronald Riggio, a professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, said he watched as Moore supporters discounted the sexual-misconduct allegations against him by insisting that he was a good person.
Democrats were divided on whether to call for former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to resign after numerous sexual-misconduct allegations against him.
"The vast majority of registered Democrats and Republicans — about 80% — vote straight party lines without fail, using a … mental shortcut that because the candidate is from the party I affiliate with, he/she is, by definition, a ‘good person,’” Riggio said.
So why did she speak out?
Carroll was likely under no illusions about what would happen when she told her story.
In her excerpt, she preemptively answers what she knows the public will want to know:
- "Did I report it to police?" No.
- "Did I tell anyone about it?" Two close friends, both journalists. One said "He raped you. Go to the police! I’ll go with you. We’ll go together.” The other said “Tell no one. Forget it! He has 200 lawyers. He’ll bury you.”
- Did cameras catch it? Carroll says Bergdorf’s confirmed it no longer has tapes from that time.
"I am sick of it," Carroll told CNN. "Think how many women have come forward. Nothing happens. The only thing we can do is ... tell our stories so that we empower other women to come forward and tell their stories because we have to change this culture of sexual violence."
Since Carroll's story was published, the National Sexual Assault Hotline reports it has seen a 53% increase in calls.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Writer E. Jean Carroll accuses Trump of rape. Why are we so reluctant to talk about it?