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Stormy Daniels testimony reveals the triumph of #MeToo

Stormy Daniels testimony reveals the triumph of #MeToo
Stormy Daniels testimony reveals the triumph of #MeToo

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Until her long-anticipated testimony at Donald Trump’s Manhattan fraud trial Tuesday, the mainstream media had leaned on misleading terms like “affair” and “tryst” to describe the alleged 2006 sexual encounter between Stormy Daniels and the criminal defendant. So I was braced for callous reactions to her time on the witness stand, where the adult film actress described an encounter with Trump far more harrowing than titillating.

While making it clear that she was “not threatened either verbally or physically,” what Daniels described also doesn’t meet any common sense definition of the word “consensual.” Trump, she said, bullied her. She didn’t want it but didn’t say no. “My hands were shaking,” she recounted, telling the court that she felt “ashamed that I didn’t stop it.” Still, she does not consider it assault. I worried, in that case, that her description would be treated as permission by the press to ignore some of the most alarming and uncomfortable aspects of what Daniels testified happened to her nearly two decades ago in Lake Tahoe. 

But when I observed the media response, I was glad to see that, despite such anxiety-producing ambiguity, mainstream journalists openly grappled with the darker implications of what Daniels recounted. The headline at the Washington Post report by Perry Stein and Devlin Barrett spelled out that Daniels’ testimony “at times sounded like a nonconsensual sexual encounter.” On MSNBC, host Nicole Wallace expressed regret for previously reducing Daniels to her job, noting that she’s also a mother and a human being. One of the New York Times live reporters noted that earlier versions of her story were less “ominous,” but then immediately offered context: “Experts on traumatic sexual experiences say that a person’s perception of such encounters can change over time, and that the most traumatic details may emerge only later.” David Graham at the Atlantic wrote that Daniels described Trump as a man “dripping with sexual entitlement and presumption.” 


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This all feels like a shift from how such matters were written about less than a decade ago. In the past, most journalists took a legalistic, black-and-white approach to the issue of sexual consent. If a description of an encounter didn’t meet a criminal definition of sexual assault, it was assumed both parties were willing and eager. Sex was treated as either fully consensual or rape, ignoring the icky truth that there are a lot of nonconsensual-but-not-provably-illegal encounters. 

This matters in helping the public understand the complexities when it comes to issues like sexual violence and consent. But it also matters in understanding this specific criminal case. 

So what changed? Part of it is no doubt the unique circumstances of this situation. Because it’s on-the-record testimony about a former president, news outlets have legal leeway to speak more freely than they would stories not offered under oath or about a private citizen. But much of the change is likely due to the rise of the #MeToo movement, which exploded in activity during Trump’s first year in office. Inspired by the brave women who stepped forward to recall sexual abuse at the hands of Trump and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, victims from all over the world and all walks of life started to speak out. 

Two major lessons were learned by journalists, most of whom followed the pile-up of #MeToo allegations closely. First, most sexual abuse is committed by repeat offenders, men who will target one person after another, until they’ve often amassed dozens of victims or more. Second, the range of predatory behavior can vary wildly, depending usually on what the abuser thinks he can get away with in any given situation. 

There’s been over two dozen accusations against Trump of everything from harassment to outright rape. Taken together, the stories paint a picture of a man constantly assessing how far he can take the coercion without facing potential legal repercussions. In the story found to be true by a New York civil jury, E. Jean Carroll described how Trump got her alone in a department store dressing room before, as the judge recounted, “Trump ‘raped’ her as many people commonly understand the word ‘rape.'” Other women describe him using the darkness of nightclubs or a closed room to grope them, which is also what Trump himself described on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. In other cases, witnesses were possibly nearby, so Trump reportedly limited himself to a forced kiss or leering with harassing comments.

What the press coverage of Stormy Daniels’ testimony shows is that journalists have a far more developed understanding of how to place an experience like what she recalled into context. It may not have been a sexual assault by the legal definition — and Daniels has repeatedly denied that is what it was — but alongside other stories, it fleshes out a picture of Trump as a man with coercive tendencies. (Something he brags about publicly when talking about matters outside of sexuality.) This matters in helping the public understand the complexities when it comes to issues like sexual violence and consent. But it also matters in understanding this specific criminal case. 

Trump’s team demanded a mistrial after Daniels testified, arguing that the vivid telling of the ugly encounter was prejudicial. Judge Juan Merchan denied the request, as well he should have. As unpleasant as it was for everyone to hear about how Trump pressured Daniels into unwanted sex, it was necessary to establish the prosecution’s case. As MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Rubin explained on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday, the prosecution wants “the jury to understand is what the impact of her story would have been, had Michael Cohen, in the final days of the campaign, not rushed to reach settlement with her.” 

The coercive elements are crucial to that understanding. Remember, Trump’s campaign only got serious about paying hush money to Daniels after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. The impact of that tape was not due to Trump’s desire for sexual promiscuity, which was already well-known by the public and something he had spent years hyping in the press. That tape was alarming because it’s Trump bragging about repeatedly committing the crime of sexual assault. Daniels’ story would have been damaging not as much because of the adultery, but because it would be corroborating evidence that, as he says in the tape, he bullies women into acquiescing to unwanted sexual contact.

This is also why it matters now that the media is willing to deal with the complexities of the testimony Daniels offered Tuesday. This isn’t just a salacious tabloid story. It cuts right to the heart of the bigger, more impactful issue of what it means to let men like Trump have power. This is the same man who, after all, made a promise to end abortion rights — and it was one of the few promises he kept. His misogyny and male entitlement matter not just to the unfortunate women who cross his path, but the millions who now have lost basic rights to bodily autonomy. 

It’s hard to know how the jury is taking all this, of course. Regular members of the public likely weren’t quite as attentive to the #MeToo movement and its lessons as journalists were, since following the news closely isn’t in most of their job descriptions. It’s quite possible some jurors still adhere to pre-#MeToo sexist tendencies, like blaming a woman for being alone with a man, instead of blaming him for taking advantage of her. Whatever the jury concludes, however, it’s still a sign of progress that the press has brought a more complex understanding of sexual consent to their coverage.

There’s been a lot of backlash to the #MeToo movement in the past few years, but in this one aspect, it seems real progress has been made. 

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