Why women keep silent about sexual assault – and how Trump may be changing that

The boasts of sexual assault by Donald Trump has triggered a wave of many women who have said that it was not mere ‘locker room talk’ but that he actually carried out those actions. Trump’s defenders have suggested that the women are not credible because they did not make these charges public at the time the assaults occurred, though many did confide in friends and relatives.

It is hard for people who have never the victims of sexual assault to imagine themselves in the same situation and thus they are unable to understand the victims’ decisions to keep silent. Journalist Danielle Berrin describes in detail her feelings and reaction when she went to interview a prominent writer in 2014 and he pawed and propositioned her. In her gripping account, she describes the swirling mixture of disgust that she felt at the time coupled with her worry about the impact on her career if she walked out of a major interview opportunity that her editor was banking on her getting. This is almost always the professional/personal dilemma that causes people to be silent and she hopes that Trump’s outing encourages more women to speak out, just the way that she now feels emboldened.

Here’s a small portion of her account.

The fact that the suggestion we’d have “sex” was even uttered during a professional meeting — by another journalist, no less — is insane. I remember how ridiculous his pickup line sounded, even as it filled me with dread. Even as he continued to pull and paw at me.

Confused, I found myself feeling paralyzed. Earlier that day, this man had been someone I deeply respected. I’d read his book voraciously and underlined passages; I’d even read every review, and recommended the book to friends. And this was supposed to have been a really important interview — one I was lucky to get. My editors were expecting something good. Could I just walk away? From someone so prominent?

Today, it would be an easy choice. But at the time, several years ago, I felt beholden to the man in power.

Once he suggested his hotel room, though, my decision was clear: I had to get out of there. Still trying to respect his distinguished reputation, I was — unbelievably, in hindsight — concerned about making a polite exit. And there was still the matter of the interview, which he continued to dangle in front of me — if I really wanted it, I’d have to come back again the next night.

I remember putting my jacket back on, because I wanted a barrier between him and me. I felt naked, though I was fully, conservatively clothed — a white blouse and black pants. And even though I was in a hotel lobby surrounded by other people, I felt unsafe. I excused myself to use the restroom.

Once I was alone, I considered running. I knew that if I stayed, there would be more come-ons, more pawing, more propositions. (He was going to be spending a lot of time in the States, he’d told me, and wouldn’t it be fun if I met him in New York as his mistress?) If I left, I would forfeit the interview, and I worried about explaining to my editors why I couldn’t deliver.

When I was asked to write this story, I called a trusted friend. “Don’t out the perpetrator,” was the first thing my friend advised me. “It will probably damage him, but it will definitely damage you.”

Some people will read this story and find fault in me: I shouldn’t have gone to meet him at night; I was naïve; I must have dressed provocatively; I must have flirted. And indeed, when I shared this story with friends and colleagues after it happened, only the women understood the experience right away. Several good, educated men required deeper explanation before they really got it.

Berrin did not name the person who groped her but he was quickly identified as a prominent writer Ari Shavit who then grudgingly admitted it by the now-common method of a non-apology a few days later that Berrin found wanting.

Berrin also tells the story of another woman who worked as fundraiser for a nonprofit who met with the advisor to a major philanthropist who promised to get her a million dollar donation if she slept with him. She could not believe that this was happening to her.

This woman also found refuge in a bathroom. “I sat on the toilet seat, thinking, ‘Can this possibly be happening to me?’ I couldn’t believe it. I was so stunned. My face was white. I was shaking. I was spinning. In the 21st century, how is this happening to me? I thought these things only happened in the movies.”

Sadly, it also happens in real life with creeps like Trump who use their wealth and power to coerce and abuse people. If there is one good thing that comes out of this campaign, it may be that such people are exposed as more women feel empowered to speak out.

Berrin’s essay is a powerful one that is well worth reading, especially for those who find it unfathomable that women would not go public with their experiences immediately.


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