The Dropped Trump Case Reminds Us That No Rape Is ‘Believable’

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Periodically throughout this election season, people pause to remember that a variety of complaints — including allegations of sexual assault — have been lodged against one of the main candidates: Donald Trump.

Six days ago, the plaintiff in a lurid rape case against Trump dropped the lawsuit; this after she canceled a press conference due to death threats. The allegations of the lawsuit were as follows: In the 1990s, Trump attended parties hosted by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. At four of these parties, Trump engaged in sexual contact with the plaintiff, who was then 13; at the fourth party, Trump tied her to a bed and forcibly raped her. Two anonymous witnesses corroborate various aspects of her story.

A number of outlets have covered the case, though up until a few days ago, it had garnered considerably less attention than other aspects of the 2016 campaign — including allegations by a number of women regarding other inappropriate behavior on the part of the Republican candidate.

The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grimm provides some insight as to why the case has not been much addressed by the mainstream media. However, the key reasons cited — anonymity of the plaintiff, who goes by the pseudonyms Katie Johnson and Jane Doe; severity of the claims; problematic backers — don’t stand up to much scrutiny. The media covers all sorts of rape cases where the plaintiff is anonymous — and the severity of the claims should logically trigger more attention (especially during a campaign largely contested on tabloid-style accusations) rather than less. Similarly, the bizarre behavior of Johnson’s backers should have stimulated more headlines, or at least more investigations such as the one carried out by the Guardian.

Overall, the big takeaway from the limited coverage of this case — even in feminist publications — was that, in our rape culture, there is simply no such thing as a “believable” rape story.

For instance, a Jezebel article by Anna Merlan (often referenced in other coverage of the case) dismisses any attempt to take Johnson’s allegations seriously from the get-go, with the title trumpeting the “wild” nature of the lawsuit.

This tone continues throughout the article: “The allegations are beyond the pale, even for Trump, and there’s little sourcing for them beyond the lawsuit itself,” Merlan observes — as though sourcing were not an issue in many rape cases. It’s the first part of that sentence that really bites, though, and it’s reiterated more bluntly later in the piece: “the allegations are almost cinematic in their depravity.”

A sympathetic reading is that this attitude is an unintended result of absorbing anti-rape culture statistics: The majority of rapes are not, of course, epic scenes of dramatic, stranger-jumping-out-from-behind-a-bush violence. Yet objectively, it reads more like a perpetuation of rape culture itself. Exactly what type of rape allegation that involved a grown man assaulting a 13-year-old wouldn’t seem beyond the pale?

Indeed, suggesting that the brutality of an attack should cast doubt on a claim’s veracity is ridiculous. Any number of rape victims can provide detailed, gruesome accounts of rape that go far beyond stereotypical date rape.

Skeptical references to the “cinematic depravity” of the allegations highlight a larger truth: There is no “believable” way to be raped. Accusing someone of date rape? That’s not really rape, the guy didn’t mean it, you just have post-sex regret, you know him, he’s not a stranger, there’s not enough violence for it to really count. Saying you were drugged and then raped? You’re a grown-up, you took a drink, the person you’re accusing is trustworthy, you don’t have bruises, there are no witnesses. Alleging you were tied to a bed and forcibly raped as a young teenager? Your story is too awful, too violent, your witnesses won’t identify themselves, no one could believe that.

See a pattern?

Clearly, there were issues with the case. These included the anonymity of the plaintiff and witnesses; the 22-year gap between the alleged assault and the filing; the fact that the case has been filed and dismissed previously; questions about the identity of one of the survivor’s key backers, Al Taylor (who may actually be Norm Lubow); a face-meltingly messy dispute between Taylor and the other big player in the case, Steve Baer; and the fact that Taylor and Baer clearly have their own interests in trying to get this into national headlines.

On the flip side, it’s common for rape survivors to remain anonymous and also common for them to take years before coming forward. Vicky Ward, who also attended Epstein’s parties during the time period that the alleged assaults took place, recalls being terrified of Epstein. It’s quite possible Trump was just as terrifying to a 13-year-old Katie Johnson, and that it took years to break through that fear — especially if, as she alleges, he threatened to harm or kill her and her family if she ever spoke out.

With regard to the other issues, Trump’s threats to sue the women accusing him of far less violent behavior could well lead the witnesses in this case to also choose to remain anonymous. The case was dismissed previously due to what were essentially filing errors — not lack of evidence. And the identity of her key backers may just be Katie Johnson’s bad luck. The dispute between her central backers, and their pursuit of their own interests, may demonstrate her poverty of choices when seeking support, her lack of knowledge about how to get a good lawyer, and the fact that in politics everyone has an angle.

Given the reluctance of many in the media and the political establishment to speak out against Trump throughout this election, is it surprising that Johnson, even as an adult, has repeatedly wavered in her claims against Trump? It’s plausible she dropped the lawsuit a few days ago not just because of death threats from Trump supporters, but because the threatened violence brought back old memories of living in fear and triggered new concerns about the future — particularly if he wins the election and has even greater means at his disposal. To an outsider, this might seem a bit paranoid; to a trauma victim, not so much.

Johnson has described a severe assault at the hands of Donald Trump. We have no way of knowing if these allegations are true or not. But if they are, her behavior — and history of teaming up with rather sketchy men to back her claims — seems pretty understandable.

Of course, low false-reporting statistics aside, it’s quite possible the whole thing was made up. But Johnson should have been able to have her day in court without being subjected to death threats — and without being excoriated by a media perpetuating rape culture’s believability myth.

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