Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Sexual Assault Revelation Isn’t the Story

The congresswoman went on Instagram Live to talk about the Jan. 6 attack. The news focused on an aside.

By Susan Matthews

On Monday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spent an hour and a half speaking on Instagram Live about a deeply personal traumatic experience she’d recently had. The subject of her talk was the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol, but headlines about her remarks had a different focus: “Ocasio-Cortez Says She Is a Sexual Assault Survivor,” the New York Times reported. “In recounting of Capitol riots, Ocasio-Cortez reveals she is a sexual assault survivor,” said CBS News. New York magazine’s headline was “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: ‘I’m a Survivor of Sexual Assault.’ ” CNN: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she’s a survivor of sexual assault while describing trauma of Capitol insurrection.”

The reporting mentioned above doesn’t deliver much more information beyond the headlines about Ocasio-Cortez’s experience with sexual assault, because she didn’t provide it. The reference to the experience was a comparatively minuscule part of her monologue — a minute or two of nearly 90 minutes on air. She was explicit that she was sharing this fact because she wanted to talk about the trauma of what had happened to her more recently, and she understands that trauma is cumulative. She also made a compelling comparison between the way abusers treat their victims and the way her Republican colleagues have responded to the events of Jan. 6. “These people are just trying to tell us, ‘It’s not a big deal,’ and they’re trying to say, ‘You’re making too big a deal over it,’ ” Ocasio-Cortez said of her Republican colleagues trying to minimize what happened. “These are tactics of abusers, or rather, these are the tactics that abusers use. So when I see this happen, how I feel, and how I felt, was not again.”

But anyone who watched the full Instagram Live could tell you that the point of the event was not for AOC to explore her personal history of sexual trauma. It was for her to share her own play-by-play of the insurrection, to explain why she felt her life was threatened multiple times over the course of the day, and to articulate how her previous life experience informed her response to that event. So why did so many news organizations frame their stories around Ocasio-Cortez’s admission that she had been sexually assaulted?

One possible reason is that Twitter can often seem like the assigning editor for journalists writ large, and the after-hours social media response to Ocasio-Cortez’s livestream was indeed focused on the sexual assault comment. This makes sense for Twitter; Ocasio-Cortez is an incredibly popular and charismatic politician, so it’s not hard to see why her admission about the assault, delivered with a clear refusal to be ashamed about it, inspired support.

But the job of media outlets isn’t to piggyback on Twitter sentiment — it’s to report the news. And yet many of them opted for a framing that feels strange and even reductive considering the urgency and national importance of the story she actually meant to share. Ocasio-Cortez was clearly aware that sharing the detail about her sexual assault history would get press, just as assigning editors were perhaps aware that framing their stories around it would get clicks. But this disproportionate focus reveals a tendency to define women, people of color, and particularly women of color by their personal experiences and particularly their personal traumas, rather than by their beliefs and opinions. That tendency begets another assumption — that their beliefs and their opinions are probably overly informed by these traumas, which makes them easier to dismiss as purveyors of pure emotion rather than informed thought. The Times’ story on Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Live remarks even cited her previous stances on famous political sexual abuse allegations (against Brett Kavanaugh and Joe Biden) as if to imply that maybe we should view these stances differently now that we know that Ocasio-Cortez herself is a survivor of assault.

What Ocasio-Cortez was trying to do on Instagram Live on Monday night was explain that she was not OK after the attack on the United States government. And that not being OK is a fully appropriate and rational response to the experiences she had. If we are to understand what is happening and has happened to our government, if we are to understand what our lawmakers are being asked to do in the aftermath of Jan. 6, we need to understand the role trauma plays in our brains as we try to process these events. This is why Ocasio-Cortez shared that she is a survivor of sexual assault on Monday night. She was noting that she understands trauma, and she understands the cycle of abuse, and it’s this understanding that is pushing her to take the actions she’s taking now — from publicizing what happened to her even when it is clearly painful, to telling Sen. Ted Cruz that she doesn’t want to collaborate with him after his refusal to apologize for his role in the incitement. Ocasio-Cortez’s admission about her experience of sexual assault is context for her story about the violence perpetrated by the GOP. It shouldn’t have been the headline.

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