One in 4 women in the US have experienced completed or attempted rape. It takes time for survivors to remember what happened, and more time to muster the courage and social support to come forward.
By Liz Roberts
May 9, 2023
Now that the civil trial against Donald Trump for rape has concluded, the jury has a decision to make. This is the first major case made possible by the Adult Survivors Act. The law – which allows survivors of sexual abuse to sue their abusers in civil court even if the attack happened decades ago – was a necessary correction to outdated statutes of limitations rooted in centuries-old notions about sexual violence.
It’s not surprising then that a defense attorney representing a man with more than a dozen allegations of sexual abuse would resort to some of the same age-old tactics to cast doubt on survivors.
Joe Tacopina, Donald Trump’s attorney, used these tactics in his shameful cross-examination of E. Jean Carroll. Carroll – who not only kept her cool, but used the cross-examination as an opportunity to correct the line of questioning – claims that Trump shoved her against the wall of a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman nearly 30 years ago. She has said that she pushed back, but that he shoved her again before raping her, until she was able to knee him and break free.
Despite the determined fight Carroll put up, Tacopina harped on why she didn’t scream for help, why she didn’t call the police, why she didn’t tell her family, and a host of other things she supposedly did incorrectly in the aftermath of the assault.
Here’s why the jury should ignore that.
Why sexual abuse is treated differently by law
This line of questioning dates back to precedent set by 17th century English jurist Sir Matthew Hale, whose views, as civil rights attorney Alexandra Brodsky wrote in her book Sexual Justice, were informed by the pervasive idea that women accused men of rape as a means of blackmail. In Hale’s view, women were manipulative liars who needed the consent of their husband or father in order to come forward with a charge of rape. He wrote that rape, “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved.”
These backward ideas have been reinforced through centuries of Anglo-American law, and are partly why, Brodsky writes, sexual abuse is treated differently by our legal system and in the processes used by schools, churches or human resource departments when survivors seek remediation.
To Tacopina and many others like him, there’s a test that victims must pass in order to prove their allegations. Did she cry out for help? Did she bear signs of physical violence? Does she have a good reputation? This checklist, which permeates not just our courtrooms but also our culture, bears no relation to the reality of sexual assault.
One in four women in the U.S. have experienced completed or attempted rape in their lifetime. An estimated 80 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. We find that since the #MeToo movement, many survivors are more comfortable naming their experiences. The bottom line: abusers are usually people we know.
And, “freezing” is a far more common survival response for survivors than this checklist would have you believe. According to Psychology Today, survivors often experience several different kinds of freezing in the course of an attack.
These biological defenses were developed through human evolution to deal with attacks, and that’s why for many survivors it can be hard to remember or piece together a chronological story, especially in the immediate aftermath. The stress and trauma not only impacts your reaction in the moment, but your memory as well. Despite Tacopina’s insistence, it’s not odd that Carroll doesn’t remember the exact date the attack occurred.
There is no perfect victim
This perfect victim checklist denies reality: it takes time for survivors to remember what happened, and more time to muster the courage and social support to come forward. Furthermore, stigma and our cultural perception of rape as the stranger-in-the-alley scenario prevents many survivors from even recognizing their own experience as sexual assault.
We can see this in Carroll’s friend Lisa Birnbach’s testimony, recalling how E. Jean, hyperventilating, described the encounter minutes after it had happened as a “fight.” It was her friend who told her, “‘E. Jean, he raped you.’”
Tacopina also tried to distract the jury by questioning Carroll’s motives and asking why she hadn’t sued earlier. Well, it simply wasn’t possible.
For years, restrictive statutes of limitations – often informed by these age-old misconceptions about sexual abuse – kept victims silent and left them with no legal recourse against their abuser. This is precisely why Safe Horizon advocated for the Adult Survivors Act – which went into effect just six months ago – to open a one-year civil lookback window for survivors who were outside the statute of limitations.
Whether Carroll wins or loses isn’t the point. Survivors deserve the option to pursue justice in the courts and hold their abusers accountable, if that is their choice.
The truth is, no matter what Carroll or any survivor does, it would never be good enough by Tacopina’s nearly 400-year-old standard. The fact is there’s no “right” way to be raped.
Liz Roberts is the CEO of Safe Horizon, a victim assistance nonprofit that has been standing with victims of violence and abuse in New York City since 1978.
Editor’s note: E. Jean Carroll is suing Donald Trump for battery and defamation. The civil lawsuit has yet to be decided by the jury. Trump has denied the claims. See the latest on the trial here.