It was Donald Trump’s denial that infuriated me.
“Lies, lies, lies,” he called the accusations of more than a dozen women who alleged sexual misconduct. “Total fiction,” he said.
When the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Trump in the final presidential debate why “so many different women from so many difference circumstances, over so many different years” would “make up these stories,” Trump doubled-down with more denial:
“Those stories have been largely debunked,” he said. “I don’t know those people. I think they want either fame or [Hillary Clinton’s] campaign did it.”
Trump’s patent dismissal of so many women who had nothing to gain and put their privacy and reputations at risk by coming forward drove me to the breaking point. It was repulsive enough that he bragged about his entitlement to women’s bodies in a leaked Access Hollywood tape; and that he admitted to barging into the dressing rooms of young female participants in his pageants; and that he’d told Howard Stern it was just fine to call his daughter, Ivanka, “a piece of ass.” But when these women came forth to accuse him of boorish behavior and he had the audacity to insult them, I decided it was time to tell my own story.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I experienced an on-the-job assault at the hands of the well-known Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit. I had never intended to tell my story publicly, though in the days following the assault it was impossible to hide my distress from friends and colleagues. I had to call my editor the next morning and explain why I failed to get the interview I had promised her for that week’s paper; I was fortunate that she comforted and supported me. But other than a pardon for not filing that week, what else could be done? This man was on the ascending arc of his career, touted as the savior of the American Jewish left. What good would it do to expose him? What damage might it bring upon me?
American culture has not been kind to women who accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct. In 1991, when the attorney Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former boss, of sexual harassment in the workplace, many attempted to discredit her. Thomas called her testimony “a high tech lynching” and the pundit David Brock described her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” A few years later, 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, became embroiled in a sex scandal with then-President Bill Clinton. She was roundly derided; shamed for being a promiscuous temptress, and later, for cashing in on her ill-begotten fame.
No one wants to be the woman who comes forward; it’s like affixing your own scarlet letter.
“Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly one at the heart of the status quo, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her 2014 book Men Explain Things to Me. “Generations of women have been told they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once.”
There was a moment last summer when it seemed this cruel curse might lift. Weeks before the Trump tape leaked, I wondered if a sea change was occurring, beginning to favor victims of sexual assault. On June 3, a reporter for BuzzFeed posted the wrenching letter to the court written by the 23-year-old woman sexually brutalized by Stanford University freshman Brock Turner. The letter went viral, transforming the voice of the victim into an engine of moral conscience. A month later, the Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson announced she had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the network’s chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, triggering a volcanic eruption at the network. Scores of women came forward to accuse Ailes of harassment and exploitation, which led him to resign in disgrace. And just as director Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation was about to hit theaters, the writer and activist Roxane Gay limned an op-ed for the New York Times on “The Limits of Empathy,” discussing Parker’s past as an accused rapist. As a victim of sexual assault herself, she wrote, “It is my gut instinct to believe the victim because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation except the humiliations of the justice system and public scorn.” As for Parker, “We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art,” she wrote. “Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people.”
For the first time, the national conversation appeared to tilt toward sympathy for victims of assault, and not the perpetrators.
But not even this—neither the courage and bravery of these women, nor the power of their voices, compelled me to tell my own story. Two-and-a-half years had passed since the assault, and I had resolved to live with it. I’d learned to accept the fact that every now and then, I might have to deal with lecherous and aggressive behavior from powerful men as part of my work climate. I told myself that dealing with sexual misconduct was simply a condition of being female.
Then the Trump tape leaked and the topic of sexual assault once again exploded into the public square. This time it had nothing to do with a woman’s accusation; this was a United States presidential candidate confessing aloud that he “can do anything” he wants to a woman—grab her body anywhere or kiss her unsolicited—precisely because he’s famous.
The news prompted a moment for self-examination and reckoning. As Trump’s campaign began to implode, he quickly said he regretted his comments. But asked about those same remarks the following day at the second presidential debate, he dismissed his transgression as “locker-room talk,” an offensive, repulsive euphemism. Any man who truly respects women and their bodies knows that there’s no such thing as “locker-room talk”; Trump’s excuse was an affirmation of his own deeply ingrained misogyny.
Ironically, in that moment, Donald Trump gave me a gift: I was moved by his dismissive words to share my story publicly out of solidarity with his victims. A bully should never have the last word.
Yet when I wrote my story for the Jewish Journal last month, I chose not to name the perpetrator of my assault. My intention was to concentrate on the issue of sexual assault and how widespread it is, rather than focus on any one man. But, indeed, my sense that the culture has changed was correct, and the response to my article was so overwhelming the perpetrator of my assault outed himself. The opposite of Donald Trump, he quickly issued a public apology for a “misunderstanding,” and when I rejected his apology as inadequate, he issued another, more honest admission of guilt.
“In the last few days I have understood that I have been afflicted by blindness,” he wrote in a statement to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “For years I did not understand what people meant when they spoke of privileged men who do not see the damage that they cause to others. Now, I am beginning to understand.”
That this man had the decency to accept responsibility for what he did makes it easier for me to forgive him. He could have easily borrowed a page from the Trump playbook and called me a liar, or disputed my report, or insulted my looks. Instead, he ultimately told the truth.
In the weeks since I published my account, I have been astonished by the support and encouragement I’ve received both in the U.S. and in Israel. The vast majority of people who participated in the conversation around my story entirely reject the idea that women should be treated or talked about as sex objects. And both men and women have reached out to me to share their own stories of abuse and assault; it is shocking how many people have suffered in silence. Carrying trauma around is heavy burden to bear.
So I'm grateful to Donald Trump. His bad behavior triggered an irreversible turn of events that has made sexual assault a topic of national, even international, importance. Our raised awareness and empathy for victims of assault will help them reclaim their dignity.
Millions of Americans harbor deep doubts about Trump’s ability to lead. In this arena, we can look to him as a model of what not to do.