Singer Taylor Swift was 23 when a radio host named David Mueller showed up at a pre-concert fan meet-and-greet and groped her while she posed for a photograph with him.
I was a bit younger than 23, just out of university and starting my first job when I stopped by my bank branch one morning. The teller seemed friendly, asking me about my hobbies. I probably mentioned reading. He said:
“My hobby is making obscene phone calls.”
Flustered, I finished my transaction and got out of there. That night, I received an obscene phone call. Chilling to consider that the bank had records that included not only my phone number but my address. I hung up on the heavy breather (who never called back) and from then on confined my banking to teller machines.
I didn’t make a fuss in the bank. I didn’t call or go see the manager after receiving the phone call. I was too “surprised, upset, offended and alarmed,” as Swift described her own reaction when a strange man grabbed her butt while standing with a woman he’d introduced as his girlfriend, in front of her photographer, other staff and her body guard. It must have flashed through Swift’s mind that a man capable of doing that was capable of anything, including lying and trying to depict her as paranoid or an unstable attention-seeker. Harassers skilled at making themselves the victim find allies in a society that is conditioned to seeing women as hysterical – an adjective I choose with deliberation, aware the word refers to the womb and to a long history of dismissing me and my sisters as biologically disposed to making trouble.
I was young when I encountered the teller, but old enough to have experienced a fair amount of harassment. For the most part it was in the familiar form of lewd comments from strange men on the streets. I had responded a few times and seen the catcalls escalate to angry insults, with the possibility the violence could switch from verbal to physical in an instant.
I don’t know that I ever considered exposing the teller long enough to think about whether I would be believed. Would I have been? He was older, white, male and known to his employers. I was younger, black and female. No doubt he had harassed other women. If any had come forward before, my words would have had more weight. More likely, though, his previous victims had kept quiet, as I did. Women learn it’s safest to move on. It’s normal to avoid conflict and try to de-escalate rather than escalate a tense situation; harassers count on that reaction to their abnormal behavior.
Women wonder if they will be believed. If they were attacked at work, they worry they will be branded troublemakers who don’t understand that “boys will be boys.” They fear their attacker will come back at them in even more dangerous ways. They want to spare themselves the humiliation or embarrassment of reliving a terrible event by recounting it. They think they will be blamed and may blame themselves.
Swift did speak up, to her mother, who was accompanying her on tour, and to her staff. Complaints were made to the local radio station that employed Mueller. He was fired.
Swift did not go to the police, hoping to avoid offering fodder to tabloid and Internet trolls and being in the same courtroom with Mueller. But two years later, Mueller went public. He filed a civil suit seeking money from Swift, claiming he had been falsely accused with fatal consequences for his career. Swift could have settled, the legal equivalent of keeping quiet and moving on. Instead, she counter-sued – and won a court order that she had done no wrong and should not have been sued followed days later by an Aug. 14 jury decision that Mueller had assaulted and battered her.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received between 6,000 and 8,000 complaints of sexual harassment on the job – the vast majority from women – in each of the years between 2010 and 2015. The Commission believes the actual incidence is much higher because many victims don’t come forward.
“The why behind what she is doing is terribly important,” The Denver Post wrote in an editorial about the Swift trial, which I just finished covering for The New York Times. “It’s important that her young female fans know it is unacceptable for men to grab women without permission – and that such assault comes with repercussions in our society.”
Are there repercussions? Last year I wrote an article for the magazine Equal Times about a survey showing that nearly six in 10 hotel workers and eight of 10 casino workers interviewed in the Chicago area reported being sexually harassed by a guest. Only a third of the women questioned said they had reported the harassment. Many who had not said that they had seen nothing change after others made reports, or that harassment was so common they had become inured to it.
During his campaign for the White House, a recording was released of Donald Trump talking about sexually assaulting women. I remember raising that conversation with Fran Sepler, a consultant who helps companies fight workplace harassment. Sepler took a deep, steadying breath before saying that she was appalled to hear so many people defend or excuse Trump.
“We are taking a step backward. Discussing women in lewd, degrading terms has been unacceptable for a generation,” Sepler told me said. “This is not up for debate.”
It takes courage for women to come forward. Beth McCann, who is district attorney in Denver, acknowledged that even as she urged women who have “suffered unwanted sexual indignities” to seek justice.
“Some may say, what’s the big deal – a hand up a skirt?” McCann wrote in a letter published in the Post on the eve of the opening of the Mueller-Swift trial. “An unwanted hand up the skirt and a grab of the bottom is sexual assault and should be acknowledged as such whether you are an international superstar or any woman.”
As she savored her legal victory Friday, Swift issued this statement:
“I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard. Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organizations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves."
On the stand she faced Mueller as his lawyer subjected her to a barrage of questions about how she could have done differently before, during and after the attack. She was forthright that the issue was not her behavior:
“Your client could have taken a normal photo with me.”
With Mueller vs. Taylor, women who were victimized saw the prospect of being hauled into court and victimized again. Because Swift stood up to Mueller, she got the satisfaction of eight jurors hearing her truth. She also got an opinion from the judge that I am sure will be cited in any future such cases confirming that a victim cannot be accused of acting legally improperly for reporting a crime.
While it may seem a small step forward, perhaps the broader victory here is that a new conversation has been started in which behavior like Mueller’s is called what it is: criminal.