The floodgates have opened. After a video emerged last week of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump describing how he could get away with sexually assaulting women because of his fame, more and more women are coming forward to recount their stories of experiencing this very behavior.
But the women are already being met with a common myth that victims of harassment and abuse often face: that they should have spoken out earlier, and the fact that they didn’t means they’re lying.
Before this week, a number of women had already publicly discussed being assaulted by Trump, alleging that he had groped and kissed them without their consent. Some of them have also filed charges. A 1997 lawsuit filed against Trump alleges that he groped and attempted to rape makeup artist Jill Harth after a business meeting at Mar-a-Lago.
But last night, a number of additional women shared their stories for the first time with a range of media outlets. Jessica Leeds told the New York Times that Trump groped her on an airplane in the 1980s. Rachel Crooks said in the same article that Trump kissed her on the mouth against her will in 2005 when she was a receptionist working in Trump Tower. Mindy McGillivray recounted for the Palm Beach Post an experience in 2003 when she says Trump grabbed her buttocks when she was working on a photo shoot at Mar-a-Lago. And People Magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff wrote about Trump pushing her up against a wall and forcibly kissing her in 2005.
In response, some Trump defenders are trying to cast doubt on these women’s stories by wondering why they didn’t say anything about what they experienced back when it happened.
On Wednesday night AJ Delgado, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, went on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes and said, “These allegations are decades old. If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”
On MSNBC, A Trump Adviser Victim Blames Assault Accusers: “Any Reasonable Woman Would Have Come…CHRIS HAYES (HOST): AJ, my understanding is that the official line of the campaign, about both these three women and a…mediamatters.orgThat narrative carried through into the morning. On Thursday, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said he was “skeptical” of the timing of these stories, saying he would have come forward earlier. “If I had been sexually harassed by this man, the Megyn Kelly story would have given me an opportunity, there have been a thousand of the reports already.”
Trump himself lashed out at one the women on Twitter with the same argument:
Why didn't the writer of the twelve year old article in People Magazine mention the "incident" in her story. Because it did not happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2016
But staying silent about harassment and abuse is the most common response among victims of these crimes. It’s not hard to see why.
In a landmark report on harassment in the workplace, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that only somewhere between 6 and 13 percent of victims file a formal complaint, while less than a third talk about it with a manager or union representative. The vast majority — nearly three-quarters — say nothing at all. “The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action — either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint,” the report says.
The most common explanations victims give for staying quiet is that they fear they won’t be believed, nothing will come of speaking up, or that they will face retaliation for doing so. That last fear has frequently come to pass: One study found that three-quarters of employees who spoke out about abuse faced retaliation.
This dynamic is even more difficult to overcome if the perpetrator holds a position of power, as Trump did in all of these instances. “If the person who is harassing you is someone who is really important not just in your company but in your industry, you have to worry not only will this make it impossible for me to continue to work here, but…what kind of black mark am I putting by my name by speaking up,” Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, previously told ThinkProgress.
That’s what some of these women say kept them quiet. “I was afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me,” People’s Stoynoff said. Crooks’ boyfriend at the time, Clint Hackenburg, recalled that she had the same reaction. “She felt like she couldn’t do anything to him because of his position,” he told the Times. “She was 22. She was a secretary. It was her first job out of college. I remember her saying, ‘I can’t do anything to this guy, because he’s Donald Trump.”
There’s also not much in it for victims to come forward. A big payday is extremely rare: federal sexual harassment damages are capped at $300,000, and the median settlement is just $30,000. And that’s if a victim has the time and resources to bring a case and is able to prevail in what is often a case of her word against her abuser’s.
What may finally be making women feel safe enough to come forward is the power of their numbers. Abuse and harassment can be isolating experiences; that changes if women see other victims describing the very same behavior they themselves endured. And it certainly helps that Trump himself has been caught on tape describing his own predatory actions.