Taylor Swift won her lawsuit this week against a man who sexually assaulted her during a meet-and-greet before a 2013 concert in Colorado.
Swift was standing next to a man while a photograph was being taken, when the guy grabbed her butt under her skirt. Swift froze – like most victims do – because she was shocked. She also froze because, as her mother said, she was raised to be polite. She coolly thanked the man and his girlfriend for coming, then minutes later, told her mother and others what happened. The guy was told to leave and he was later fired from the radio station where he worked at the time. He sued Swift for 3 million dollars for defamation. She counter-sued for 1 dollar for sexual assault. He lost. She won. The case offers many lessons.
Lesson one: Raising girls to be polite is dangerous. Sexual assault happens more often than it should because too many victims fail to respond by screaming and punching and embarrassing the guy, though the law permits the use of force to repel a sexual assault. Even deadly force is legal in most states to prevent rape.
Lesson two: (this one is for offenders). All unwanted sexual touching of another person’s body is a crime that can land you in prison for years. Some men think a grab of the rear end is no big deal — but a pat on a butt is the same serious offense as a hand on a breast. Just ask Tom Wopat – the Dukes of Hazard actor who was charged this month in Waltham District Court with sexual assault for touching the rear end of a castmate in a local stage production.
Lesson three: most men who impose themselves on women do so because they feel a sense of entitlement. Husbands feel entitled to assault their wives because of marriage. Actors feel entitled because of their fame. College men feel entitled because of their wealth or status as athletes, and men generally feel entitled because, well, they’re men.
It goes without saying that most men are not perpetrators, just as most white people are not white supremacists. But it matters that most victims are female, and most offenders are male, just as most victims of racist violence are black, and most offenders are white.
Taylor Swift achieved justice, but most victims don’t, primarily because prosecutors often decline to file charges in cases where charges are warranted. Sometimes they blame the victim’s lack of interest in pursuing the case, but they don’t explain that the lack of interest came from people telling the victim that seeking justice will be painful, and that the case will be difficult. Not so. Sexual assault cases are easy. The victim takes the stand and says what happened. That’s it. If the jury believes her beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s a guilty verdict. If not, it’s a not guilty verdict. Either way, it’s a victory for the victim because prosecutors believed her, she held her head high in a court of law, and she pointed a finger of blame at her attacker. That is justice. Giving visibility to the scourge of sexual violence in this country is justice. Staying silent is unjust, and it is what offenders want, which is why all victims should do the opposite.
Between now and when courtrooms are appropriately filled with sex crimes cases, women can and should take steps to become more physically empowered by taking lessons in self-defense, aggression, and weaponry. With training, Taylor Swift might have grabbed the nearest microphone and whacked the guy in the face when he grabbed her butt, which would have been an excellent tutorial for Swift’s fans.
The final lesson is for Taylor Swift’s attorney. After the verdict, he said the case stood for the principle that “no means no,” but he’s wrong. Taylor Swift never said no, or anything else, to her attacker. The attorney should have said, “sexual assaults are not about whether no means no. A woman does not have to say ‘no’ to prevent an unwanted intrusion, anymore than a homeowner has to say ‘no’ to stop a trespasser from barging in. The issue is whether a woman WANTS and WELCOMES sexual contact; a decision for her alone to make. Anyone who disregards this principle violates a woman’s autonomy, bodily integrity, and exclusive authority over her body.”
The attorney missed a golden opportunity, but maybe Taylor Swift’s next big song will make the point more clearly. Here’s hoping she pens a new tune called “Butt Out,” and includes lyrics that remind men they have no “right” to touch any woman, ever, even if she doesn’t say “no.” If she’s gutsy, Swift will include a line or two encouraging victims to be violently impolite whenever necessary.
Even I will dance to that song.
Professor of sexual violence law
Wendy Murphy is adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston where she has taught for fifteen years. An impact litigator whose work in state and federal courts around the country has changed the law to improve protections for women’s and children’s constitutional rights, she developed and directs several projects in conjunction with the school’s Center for Law and Social Responsibility.