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Trump, Cosby, Ailes: it took celebrity accusers to make us listen to sexual assault victims

Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty
(Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

When Jill Harth told the Guardian this summer that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump attempted to rape her in the late 1990s, the article received middling attention.

“I received zero media requests about it,” the story’s author, Lucia Graves, recently told the Columbia Journalism Review. “Even the radio segment that I was booked on didn’t really want to spend too much with me on it because it ‘hadn’t gotten traction,’ as the host put it.”

But now the story of Trump’s mistreatment of women is everywhere. Sixteen women have come forward, putting their names to stories accusing Trump of assaulting, groping, and harassing them. It’s an astonishing turn of events, but also one that feels predictable in hindsight. Trump is experiencing the same cycle that Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes — two other notorious abusers and harassers — experienced recently.

Whispers of wrongdoing surrounded all of these men for years. But the word of one woman did little to stick. Once a power dynamic shifts, though, the silence around their transgressions (and perhaps even crimes) breaks. In Trump’s case, the floodgates opened when a person in power spoke about his pattern of sexual assault: Trump himself.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump told Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in audio from 1995 leaked this month. “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

CNN’S Anderson Cooper amplified Trump’s comments at the second presidential debate. “That is sexual assault,” Cooper stated flatly. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

Anderson made it plain: What Trump had discussed — and what other women had accused him of — ought to be taken seriously. Once that happened, more than a dozen other women came forward to say that the billionaire had harassed, groped, or otherwise touched them inappropriately.

“Victims may wait days, weeks, months, years, decades,” says Tom Tremblay, a former police officer who now works to train enforcement departments to better handle sexual assault. “When one victim comes forward, it’s not at all uncommon to see other victims come forward, who are thinking, ‘Well, they came forward; now it’s not just my word.’ And then we see the next victim says the same thing.”

There is something disheartening, perhaps, about the fact that it often takes powerful men to start the pile on a predatory man in power himself. Advocacy groups have pushed for years to make women’s voices heard on the merits of their own claims.

At the same time, there is an optimistic reading of these cases: that there are powerful men and women who are willing to speak out against sexual assault and, in the process, are giving victims a way to actually be heard.

From Cosby to Trump: When we do — and don’t — listen to sexual assault victims

Bill Cosby faced multiple sexual assault allegations in the 1980s up through the mid-2000s. The women ranged from a former basketball star who said that Cosby had drugged and groped her to a California lawyer who went on the Today show with a similar story.

Two women reported giving interviews to media outlets about incidences of assault in the 1980s and ’90s that were never published.

The accusations against Cosby didn’t stick — they didn’t become a massive story — until a famous (male) comedian brought them onstage in the middle of 2014.

“You rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches,” comedian Hannibal Buress said in a April 2014 comedy routine.

Before Buress’s comedy routine, allegations of sexual assault against a well-known television star were brushed aside. Afterward, they were headline news. And dozens of women began to report assaults that had happened over the course of four decades, as news outlets and their readers began to take those reports much more seriously.

“Perhaps the most shocking thing wasn’t that Buress had called Cosby a rapist,” Noreen Malone wrote for New York magazine. “It was that the world had actually heard him.”

Ailes was brought down by Gretchen Carlson, who spent more than a year secretly recording her meetings with the Fox News chief executive before filing a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Carlson was a high-profile Fox News employee, having hosted two separate shows for the network over the decade she spent with the channel. She caught Ailes on tape saying things like, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better. Sometimes problems are easier to solve.”

After Carlson went public with charges of sexual assault against Ailes, other Fox News employees quickly followed. As New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported, more than two dozen Fox News employees have now accused Ailes of sexual harassment.

Sherman, who has covered Fox News for years now, reports that Carlson was the first to come forward — but her experience was far from surprising or unique within the news network:

It was common knowledge at Fox that Ailes frequently made inappropriate comments to women in private meetings and asked them to twirl around so he could examine their figures; and there were persistent rumors that Ailes propositioned female employees for sexual favors. The culture of fear at Fox was such that no one would dare come forward.

Once again, the dam broke when a person in power decided to come forward.

Sexual assault is about power — and that continues after the assault

There are obvious ways that sexual assault is about power: the power to touch another person’s body in a way they didn’t consent to; the power to force another to perform sexual acts they do not want to perform.

But it’s not just the act of sexual assault that’s about power. It’s the aftermath, too, that can leave the victim powerless. Tremblay, the former police officer, explained this especially well:

A lot of times, these crimes are committed by individuals who are using power and control over someone. It’s not always that. Instead, it’s the suspect or offender who is leveraging some sort of power or control over someone. Maybe it’s their position, maybe it’s their stardom, maybe it’s their wealth. It’s not just physical power. It could be something like an age difference or experience difference that is used.

The power dynamic that allows an assault to happen in the first place is the same power dynamic that can make it so difficult for victims to have their stories heard in the aftermath.

In 2005, Tamara Green accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her in the 1970s. She came forward after similar accusations surfaced from former basketball player Andrea Constand.

Green immediately faced huge scrutiny. Cosby’s representatives, People Magazine has reported, “began to leak negative information about her” to the press. She was described in one news article as “a woman with a history of treatment for substance abuse or mental problems.”

“People often these days say, ‘Well, why didn’t you take it to the police?’” Green told New York magazine last year. “Andrea Constand went to the police in 2005 — how’d it work out for her? Not at all. In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media.”

It’s not that sexual assault victims are speaking up for the first time. It’s that we’re finally listening.

Sexual assault is a disturbingly common in the United States. One in four American women report having experienced unwanted sexual contact in their lifetime; one in five report being raped.

Most of these instances of sexual assault in the United States go unreported. The federal government estimates that only about one in three sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement.

My colleague Liz Plank asked women to share on Twitter their stories about why they don’t come forward. The responses showed that many women don’t come forward because they don’t have the power — they don’t expect to be heard.

Women have become accustomed to brushing off these instances, pretending that these this is normal behavior — a point Michelle Obama eloquently made while speaking in New Hampshire last week.

“I have to tell you that I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I'm sure that many of you do too, particularly the women,” Obama said. “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.”

It is disappointing that when you examine these high-profile cases, you see the same pattern: Accusations of assault are too frequently brushed off and ignored until someone in power speaks out.

But there is also something hopeful in these high-profile cases: that once women did feel comfortable coming forward, their stories mattered.

Roger Ailes stepped down as Fox News’s chief executive 15 days after Carlson filed her lawsuit. Bill Cosby has seen numerous honorary degrees and awards revoked in the past two years.

“Mr. Cosby has demonstrated a lack of character and integrity that clearly does not represent the values to which our university is committed and for which he was honored,” Tufts University president Tony Monaco wrote in revoking the honorary degree the school had given Cosby four years earlier.

Women are speaking up, right now, on sexual assault. And finally, we’ve started to listen.

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