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Why Taylor Swift’s sexual assault verdict is a victory for women everywhere

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st-century context. In the week that Taylor Swift won a case against an ex-DJ who grabbed her bottom in 2013, stylist.co.uk’s acting editor, Kayleigh Dray, thanks the pop star for rewriting the narrative on sexual assault.

We all know what sexual assault looks like. Or, if you believe what you see on screen, what it is ‘supposed’ to look like.

In Downton Abbey, it was housemaid Anna being violently attacked by Mr Green. In scenes that stretched out over several minutes, Anna was punched, kicked, thrown over tables, dragged by her hair and raped as the rest of the household sang Christmas carols upstairs.

Elle, likewise, opens with Michèle being viciously beaten and raped in her Paris home. Game of Thrones saw Sansa brutally assaulted by the psychotic Ramsey Snow. And Scandal was widely criticised for its incredibly graphic portrayal of Mellie’s rape at the hands of her husband’s father.

Then there’s The Girl With The Dragon TattooLeaving Las VegasI Spit on Your Grave and Straw Dogs (a Peckinpah film that caused massive controversy and was banned in the UK because the rape victim began to enjoy her rape). The list goes on and on.


Read more: Will we ever be able to stamp out victim-blaming in cases of assault?


These are just a few examples of the stories that TV and filmmakers like to tell about sexual assault. There’s a marked trend in the kinds of assaults that they choose to portray, in the types of victims that they gravitate toward and in the distortions that can happen when the crime is used as a plot device.

Violence sells, there’s no denying that, but these graphic portrayals are chosen specifically to shock, horrify and disgust. And they do, as such horrific crimes should. However, they also contribute to the idea of what all sexual assault is supposed to look like; they perpetuate unhelpful myths and stereotypes. That sexual assault is only ever rape. That rape is often committed by a stranger in the dead of night. That only young ‘attractive’ women and girls, who flirt and wear ‘revealing’ clothes, are targeted (and men are rarely targeted at all). And there’s always a violent struggle – leaving the victim with visible injuries, which acts as ‘proof’ of her story, of her resistance.

Straw Dogs has been widely criticised for its problematic portrayal of rape

Straw Dogs has been widely criticised for its problematic portrayal of rape

It’s all nonsense. People of all ages and appearances, and of all classes, cultures, abilities, genders, sexualities, races and religions, can be the victim of rape. Only around 10% of rapes are committed by ‘strangers’. And rape is absolutely not the only example of sexual assault.

There are scores of women who have been heckled, groped, grabbed, manhandled, slapped, tweaked, pinched, stroked, or smacked in public by a complete stranger. Women who have been left reeling from that sense of powerlessness, fear, shame, and embarrassment. Women who have felt unable to speak up or report the incident, because “it’s just one of those things that happen” and society tells her to “get over it”.

It's thought that only 344 out of every 1,000 cases of sexual assault gets reported to authorities, meaning roughly two thirds of incidents will never be investigated. 

There are a multitude of reasons for this, many of which have been detailed on Twitter using the viral #WhyWomenDontReport hashtag. Women fear that they will lose their jobs, that they will be heckled, that they will not be believed, or that they will be made to feel it’s their own fault in some way. That they will be made to feel “silly” or “overdramatic” for bringing the crime to the attention of police. That if they even react to the perpetrator they will aggravate the situation. 

And is it surprising that they feel this way? Hardly.

It’s no coincidence that society – and pop culture in particular – has normalised these types of assault. It’s 2017, but a man can be let off lightly for raping an unconscious woman because of his promising athletics career. A fashion model can be accused of being “unladylike” because she lashed out at a stranger who publicly assaulted her on the street. A rich reality star can boast of grabbing women “by the pussy” because he’s famous, yet still be elected leader of the free world. And comedy films continue to persist with the idea that sexual assault can be… well, can be funny.  

How many times have we seen a male character condescendingly pat a woman on the bottom or ‘hilariously’ peep at her while she’s changing? How many times have we seen male ‘friends’ grab at their female friends’ boobs for the sake of a laugh? How many times have we seen women’s underwear passed around and pawed over without their knowledge?

Even much-loved Love Actually, which includes a plot line about the President of the United States groping and slobbering at one of the Prime Minister’s aides (how prophetic), offers up the incident through a misogynist lens: it’s not Natalie’s humiliation which takes centre stage, it’s the jealousy that the PM experiences. His feelings are put above hers. For her, it’s just – and, yes, we say it again – just one of those things that women are expected to put up and deal with.

Which is why it’s such an enormously big deal that Taylor Swift has not only won her court case against DJ David Mueller, but that she took him to court in the first place.


Read more: Why are women's cries for help falling on deaf ears?


In 2013, Swift posed for a photo with Mueller and his then-girlfriend, Shannon Melcher. But, as the three of them smiled for the camera, Mueller reached up under the pop star’s skirt and groped her.

“Right as the moment came for us to pose for the photo, he took his hand and put it up my dress and grabbed onto my ass cheek and no matter how much I scooted over, it was still there,” Swift later said in a videotaped deposition.

“It was completely intentional, I've never been so sure of anything in my life.”

“It was completely intentional, I've never been so sure of anything in my life”

“It was completely intentional, I've never been so sure of anything in my life”

Like many women in similar situations, Swift didn’t initially go to the police and tell them that a man had grabbed her body without consent. But she didn’t stay quiet either: she reported it to his bosses at his radio station, who fired him. He then attempted to sue her, so she countersued – knowing that to do so would be a public and costly process – in order to highlight that “grabbing a woman’s rear end is an assault, and it's always wrong”.

Mueller’s lawyer attempted to shift the blame onto the singer with his misogynistic but sadly unsurprising line of questioning, with queries perfectly illustrating the rampant victim-blaming in such situations – such as asking why she didn’t instantly stop the meet-and-greet event to tell someone rather than 15 minutes later (she later said her response was one of shock, that “it was like a light switched off in my personality. I just said in a monotone voice, ‘Thank you for coming.’”)

Swift, though, wasn’t going to take it.

A courtroom sketch of Taylor Swift

A courtroom sketch of Taylor Swift

When asked why her skirt wasn't ruffled in a photograph of the encounter, she responded: “Because my ass is located on the back of my body.”

When asked if she was critical of her bodyguard for not stopping the assault, she responded: “No, I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my bare ass.”

When it was suggested that Swift could have called the police after the incident, she responded: “Your client could have taken a normal photo with me.”

And, when asked how she felt about Mueller losing his job, she responded: “I’m not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault.

“I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions and not mine.”


Read more: Stanford rapist to be released after serving just half of his prison sentence


We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, to be honest.

Swift chose to give her testimony on a public stage, making headlines worldwide thanks to her huge celebrity, because she wanted to give a voice to “anyone who feels silenced by a sexual assault”. She wanted to empower women and give them the hope that, should they come forward and speak out, their voices will be heard.



“I want to thank Judge William J. Martinez and the jury for their careful consideration, my attorneys Doug Baldridge, Danielle Foley, Jay Schaudies and Katie Wright for fighting for me and anyone who feels silenced by a sexual assault, and especially anyone who offered their support throughout this four-year ordeal and two-year long trial process,” Swift said in a 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,” she continued.

“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.”


Read more: Gigi Hadid attacked by stranger and immediately blamed for it


The only person who is to blame in any instance of assault is the attacker. Say it once more, with feeling: the only person who is to blame in any instance of assault is the attacker. To suggest otherwise is not just morally reprehensible, it suggests that doing so is somehow OK, excusable.

Whether a fan of her or not, in standing up and speaking out in this particular situation Swift has struck a blow for women everywhere. She’s reminded the world that there is no one way to look like a victim. That victimhood is not part of our genetic make-up, nor is it defined in how we dress, style our hair or put on our make-up. That there is no “correct” way to behave or act after you’ve been assaulted, just as there is no “correct” way to be assaulted. That our voices deserve to be heard.

Workers put up a sign in support of Taylor Swift

Workers put up a sign in support of Taylor Swift

More importantly than even this, though, is the message about society’s twisted normalization of assault: when we tell women not to overreact when some stranger grabs at them, we are telling them that their feelings are not as important as that of the man who has assaulted them. By telling them that they should “enjoy the attention”, we’re teaching them that the sole purpose of their existence is to titillate and tease men. By telling them it’s “just one of those things”, we’re assaulting them all over again.

And, by demanding a symbolic $1 in damages, she’s helping change the narrative about sexual assault.


If you have been subject to sexual assault, call 999 to report it to police.

Information and support can be found at nhs.ukgov.uk and rapecrisis.org.uk.

If you need to report assault or harassment on public transport, British Transport Policeurges victims of sexual assault to report the crime as soon as possible, by approaching a police officer or station staff, calling 0800 40 50 40 or texting 61016.

Images: Rex Features

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