By Juliette Holland
A trial met with widespread coverage but ambivalent feeling, Taylor Swift’s successful countersue against broadcaster David Mueller (following his accusations of her causing him professional repercussions due to his sexual assault of her) is a victory for women – to some degree. Equally, however, it has merely accentuated the visibility of ingrained societal issues that prove there is still a long way for feminism to go before we can claim a society based upon equality.
In 2015, David Mueller began his case, seeking $3 million in damages from Taylor Swift. He claimed that her false allegations of sexual assault had cost him his career. This was the first the world had heard of the scandal. In 2013, Swift had privately divulged that Mueller had sexually assaulted her by sticking his hand up her dress as they posed for a photo with his girlfriend at one of Swift’s concerts, but not reported it, despite the felonious nature of the act. Two days after the incident, Mueller was removed from his daily slot on the Ryno and Jackson Morning Show on Denver’s 98.5 KYGO station, where he had been earning an estimated £115,000 a year. Two years later, Mueller announced his intention to sue and, at last, Swift broke her silence to intervene. The trial, that would publically highlight the way rape culture trivialises sexual assault, silences and places doubt upon women, had begun.
Both the trial and society’s attitudes demonstrate the pervasive ‘rape culture’ that monopolises institutions and our culture. Firstly, it displays the trivialisation of sexual assault and the silencing of its victims. When a guilty man to have the audacity to sue for the consequences of his own actions, it demonstrates an innate belief that someone’s career is more worthy than consent. Even worse, the bitter irony is that a sexual predator’s career falling apart is worthy enough to be taken to court but the sexual assault itself is not. To some, this sends the message that the incident did not happen – otherwise Swift would have taken the cake to trial. In fact, this is precisely the scepticism that likely explains why she didn’t report it. It’s same reason that 80% of sexual assault victims don’t report their attacks. Society has created a pervasive fear that victims will only be told: ‘you are lying’. Only 0.006% of reported sexual assault cases end in incarceration. But more than this, there exists a disturbing feeling that harassment is part and parcel of being female, whether it’s simply catcalling or something more serious, that means often women do not see assault as serious enough to be reported.
Perhaps Taylor Swift simply did not wish to become embroiled in a legal scandal that she would come out of portrayed as the antithesis of a victim – as someone who brought it on themselves. Indeed, Mueller’s defence lawyers tried to make her responsible, asking her if she felt guilty for what had happened to him: she had ‘ruined his career’ by telling the truth. They attempted to undermine her credibility by questioning whether she could really have known it was his hand – an attitude displaying the scepticism which victims must face. Swift battled this doubt and asserted the veracity of her experience. Simultaneously, she distanced herself from blame, with the empowering statement “I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault”.
But not everyone is so aware of the defence’s tactic of introducing scepticism. As a result, many vulnerable victims are let down by this system – a system that represents a microcosm of society’s propagation of rape culture. For such ideas are rampant amongst The Sun and Daily Mail-reading masses. The prevalent attitude conveyed is that, if someone harasses or assaults, the consequences are the victim’s fault – not the perpetrator’s. In legal terms, this seems laughably ridiculous. But replace the words ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ with ‘woman’ and ‘man’ (as is statistically habitual in sexual harassment cases), and we have a rhetoric that presents the same issue, but in a way that many people no longer see as so clear cut. The woman may have been dressed promiscuously, may have been drunk, or even flirtatious. Naturally, that’s enough to justify harassment or assault.
Whilst the perpetrator maintained this was a financial issue, Swift, with her countersue of $1, elevated it from an economic problem to a moral, social and cultural one. The money wasn’t important: pointing out society’s problems was. Whilst the premise of the trial may have been counterproductive, it gave a prominent and influential cultural figure the platform to dispel myths and reinstate truths and justices around sexual assault, and to highlight the problems in reporting and dealing with a sexual assault trial. This victory shows that it’s not just individuals against society, even if we are a long way from justice. Highlighting issues is the first step to solving them: this trial proved it. Now, let’s hope more women are inspired to challenge their aggressors.
Photograph: Eva Rinaldi via Flickr and CreativeCommons