On Wednesday night, stories started pouring in from women accusing Donald Trump of sexual assault — groping them or kissing them against their will much like Trump bragged about doing in a leaked audio recording.
But almost immediately, Trump surrogates and others started calling their stories into question because of the timing.
“These allegations are decades old,” senior Trump adviser A.J. Delgado told Chris Hayes on MSNBC. “If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.” Delgado added that she didn’t find the women who talked to the New York Times “credible” because they reportedly support Hillary Clinton.
“Talk about an October surprise," Scarborough said. "There have been a thousand triggering events that would've made sense. If I had been sexually harassed by this man, the Megyn Kelly story would've given me an opportunity."
But the timing of these reports really isn't suspicious at all. In fact, it's totally expected and even “reasonable,” to use Delgado’s words, when you understand how victims of sexual abuse respond to trauma and social stigma.
This isn’t an “October surprise.” Trump said in October that he never groped women, and that’s when his accusers responded to say he’s lying.
The three women who spoke to journalists at the New York Times or the Palm Beach Post all said they were inspired to come forward after hearing Trump deny on national television that he had done the things he described on the leaked tapes.
Natasha Stoynoff of People magazine also led off her story with the exchange from the second presidential debate, when Anderson Cooper asked Trump: “Just for the record, are you saying … that you did not actually kiss women without consent?”
“I have not,” Trump said.
This wasn’t just a “triggering” event, as Scarborough put it (although the harassment of Megyn Kelly was indeed triggering for survivors of abuse). This was Trump explicitly denying that he had done exactly the kinds of things these women say he did to them.
The New York Times reported that it was after the debate that one of the accusers, Rachel Crooks, emailed a reporter at the Times about her experience.
The other accuser who talked to the Times, Jessica Leeds, said that she started telling her story to people she knew about a year and a half ago, when it became apparent that Trump was “actually running for president.”
But as Leeds explained to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, watching the debate inspired her to write a letter to the editor to the New York Times to tell her story. That led staffers to contact her and reporters to interview her, which led to her story being vetted and published.
And Crooks had reportedly been talking to Times staffers about her experience before the debate — but it wasn’t until afterward that she actually agreed to go on the record.
Two competing narratives about the timing of these stories about Trump's unwanted advances... https://t.co/hIlvqCgxnG— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) October 13, 2016
Victims have much to lose, and often little to gain, by coming forward
There’s a tendency in our culture to automatically disbelieve victims of sexual abuse when they come forward. That’s especially true in high-profile cases against famous or powerful men, as we’ve seen just this year with Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes.
When an accuser’s story is called into question, the typical narrative is that she’s just seeking attention or a big payout, or that she has some other ulterior motive.
But if you’ve ever talked to actual victims of assault, or been one yourself, you know that coming forward is terrifying and intimidating on all kinds of levels, and that the costs often drastically outweigh the benefits.
As a purely practical matter, pressing charges can mean putting your life on hold for an investigation or a trial, and losing a lot of time and money as a result.
Right about now, victims aren't reporting because they don't want this to take over their lives.— Irin Carmon (@irin) October 13, 2016
“It’s almost impossible for most women to respond effectively to sexual harassment,” said Patricia Barnes, an attorney and an expert on workplace discrimination, in an earlier interview with Vox. “Because to do so means they have to hire an attorney, they have to go through a complex legal proceeding that takes years, and it has an uncertain outcome at best and often fails.”
The potential payout is rarely worth it. If you go the civil route, the median settlement for a sexual harassment suit is $30,000. If you’re pursuing a criminal case, most accused rapists never see jail time.
Accusing a powerful man also means risking your career if he’s your boss, or even if he works in your industry. We heard stories along these lines from Roger Ailes’s alleged victims, one of whom said there was a “conspiracy of silence” around Ailes’s behavior because nobody wanted to “be personally and professionally destroyed” by Ailes.
The idea that harassment &assault has to be reported immediately in order to be credible is ridiculous. Many victims wait/never say anything— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) October 13, 2016
Then there are the personal and emotional costs. Victims risk being shunned by their community if they accuse someone who is well-liked. They risk having their personal life, and especially their sex life, ruthlessly scrutinized by people who want to find reasons not to believe them.
Finally, sexual abuse causes trauma that may be too painful to relive in court, much less in public. It may take victims a long time to even admit to themselves that they were abused or victimized. Victims may simply want to “suppress” the experience, as Trump accuser Leeds put it, and move on with their lives. And victims often feel shame after their attack, even if they’ve done nothing wrong.
So it’s no surprise that many victims never report the crimes against them in the first place. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that they may only decide to come forward years later — because it takes that long to process the trauma, or to muster up the courage to put yourself through the reporting process, or to find the time to put the rest of your life on hold to pursue justice.
How long did it take you speak publicly about your sexual abuse and name the perpetrator? It took me 30 years...— G O L D I E. (@goldietaylor) October 13, 2016
Trump’s accusers had understandable reasons to wait
Leeds, who is 74 years old and says Trump assaulted her in the early 1980s on an airplane, explained that society’s attitudes at the time heavily discouraged victims from speaking out.
“The culture had instilled in us that somehow it was our fault, the attention that we received from men,” Leeds said. “That we were responsible for their behavior. You didn’t complain to the authorities, you didn’t complain to your boss. If something happened to you, you just bucked up and you went on.”
But despite the feminist advances of the intervening decades, this is still often true today.
But most depressingly: being assaulted, grabbed, groped, etc is not an unusual occurrence for women. It happens throughout our lives— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) October 13, 2016
We're taught that being catcalled & groped is an expected part of a woman's life. (Boys will be boys!) How do you report the everyday?— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) October 13, 2016
Crooks, who said Trump forcibly kissed her outside an elevator in 2005, told the Times that the incident made her “so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that.”
But as Crooks’s then-boyfriend also told the Times: “I think that what was more upsetting than him kissing her was that she felt like she couldn’t do anything to him because of his position. ... I remember her saying, ‘I can’t do anything to this guy, because he’s Donald Trump.’”
Power imbalances, shame and trauma, the fear of social stigma — all of these are reasons why it often takes something big to encourage women to come forward. It might take hearing someone else break her silence publicly first, which can make it feel safer and less lonely for you to do the same.
It might take hearing that your attacker had other victims, which could make you feel morally obligated to help make sure he can’t do it again.
Or it might take seeing the question of whether your attacker committed sexual assault suddenly become a presidential campaign issue.