When Natasha Stoynoff, a writer for People, published a story about a 2005 encounter with Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago hotel, many people (even those who suspect that the Republican candidate for president regularly engages in such behavior) wondered why it took her (and other accusers) so long to come forward. After all, the man has been running for president for over a year now.
After Trump allegedly pushed her up against a wall and forced his tongue down her throat, Stoynoff still submitted her story and for the most part kept silent (telling only a colleague but not her editor). Explaining her silence, she wrote:
Like many women, I was ashamed and blamed myself for his transgression. I minimized it (‘It’s not like he raped me…’). I doubted my recollection and my reaction. I was afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me, especially if I got his coveted PEOPLE feature killed.
There is no reason to doubt Stoynoff’s story given the other things we know about Donald Trump’s behavior and attitudes about women, including things he boasted about to Billy Bush. But her explanations for not telling sooner, and for why she wrote a complimentary story about Trump and his new bride Melania, may tell us something about the way we view sexual assault and why it is unlikely to change.
Jessica Leeds, who says she was groped by Trump on an airplane 30 years ago, explains that she did not complain to the airline staff at the time because such behavior was par for the course in the 1970s and 80s. “We accepted it for years,” she said of the conduct. “We were taught it was our fault.”
How is it possible that almost three decades apart, Leeds and Stoynoff experienced virtually the same reaction to these alleged sexual assaults? In college, did Stoynoff not receive the kind of education that other women her age have had? Did she not learn that men don’t have the right to such advances, that sexual assault and harassment is a crime, that it is not the fault of the victims, that it should be reported to the authorities, that women’s bodies are their own, and that “no” means “no”? Did she miss all those “Take Back the Night” rallies?
Feminists will take Stoynoff’s statements about why she did not report Trump’s behavior as evidence that the education of young women has not been extensive enough, that we need more discussion about sexual assault, and that our awareness is still stifled by a patriarchy determined to make women victims.
But there is another possibility: perhaps there is something about sexual assault—the intimacy associated with it, the violation of one’s private sphere physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and the betrayal of trust that is involved—that makes women feel so ashamed that they don't report it. In fact, according to the National Institute for Justice, some of the reasons many women and girls do not report rape and sexual assault include: guilt, shame or embarrassment, and fear of the perpetrator.
Obviously in the case of someone running for president, there will be those who blame or refuse to believe the victim simply because they want their candidate to win, and Trump is certainly not the first presidential candidate to be accused of sexual assault years after the fact (think former President Bill Clinton’s many sexual assault accusers).
But in most other cases, women like Stoynoff and Leeds would find a sympathetic ear. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that if Stoynoff were working for a news outlet besides People that such a story would have hurt her career. Imagine if Trump tried to put his hands on a reporter for the Miami Herald or the New York Times. It would have been a front-page story. And the papers probably would have used it as an excuse to investigate Donald Trump’s activities long before he was a presidential candidate.
But most women don’t want reports of their sexual assaults on the front page. And no amount of feminist re-education is going to change that. Sexual encounters in any form—even assaults—feel like private matters. Which is not to say we shouldn’t encourage the victims to come forward. Imagine how many women might have been saved from these incidents if they had been warned about Trump’s behavior. The fact that his alleged victims did not come forward sooner is not necessarily evidence of widespread sexism or a rape culture. It may simply show that women have a natural inclination to keep sexual matters—especially incidents involving unwanted sexual advances—to themselves.