President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault or misconduct by at least 22 women, denied the latest sexual assault allegation against him from writer E. Jean Carroll by claiming that he wasn’t attracted to her. This is an argument right out of his playbook — and it’s also a bizarre way to defend yourself against a sexual assault allegation.
Carroll accused the president of sexual assault last week, in an excerpt of her book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, published in New York Magazine’s The Cut. In this excerpt, she described an incident in the 1990s when she said she saw Trump at the Bergdorf Goodman store in New York. Trump reportedly asked her to help him buy a present for a woman and eventually asked her to try on lingerie for him. Carroll wrote that she wanted to try to convince him to try it on over his pants. As they enter the dressing room, she said, he lunged at her, pushed her against a wall, unzipped his pants, and “forcing his fingers around my private area, thrusts his penis halfway — or completely, I’m not certain — inside me. It turns into a colossal struggle.” She eventually fought him off of her and ran out of the store.
On Monday, Trump told The Hill newspaper that he does not know Carroll at all — even though there’s a photo of him meeting her in 1987 — and that he’s not attracted to her.
“I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened,” he said. “It never happened, OK?”
Trump has made similar remarks in the past. In 2016, Jessica Leeds came forward and said that more than 30 years ago, when she and Trump were on a flight together, he grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt. Trump responded to the accusation by saying she was too unattractive for him to assault.
He said at a campaign event at the time, “Believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you. You don’t know. That would not be my first choice.”
By claiming he isn’t attracted to these women, Trump represents sexual assault as driven solely by desire for another person rather than what it really is: a violent action driven as much as by a need to exert power as any kind of attraction. Referring to attractiveness reframes an assault and puts it in the same language we use to talk about consensual romantic and sexual encounters.
By discussing her attractiveness, Trump also shifts attention from what we should be talking about: whether or not he sexual assaulted Carroll in the 1990s. Now, he has shifted the conversation to focus on an assessment of the alleged victim’s appearance and whether she was “attractive enough” to be chosen as his victim. Sexual assault becomes a compliment bestowed only on attractive women, and Trump is able to further objectify women as he denies the sexual assault allegations.
As he does this, he also attempts to perpetuate ideas about his personal brand as a man who should be in a position to evaluate women’s physical appearance and hold them to only the highest standards of beauty. After all, he once owned the Miss Universe franchise, and he is also alleged to have entered dressing rooms of Miss Teen USA contestants while they were undressing, some of whom were as young as 15.
Trump claims Carroll made up the incident to sell her book. “She is — it’s just a terrible thing that people can make statements like that,” Trump told The Hill.
His response to sexual assault appears similar to what Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, had in mind when coining the term DARVO, or “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” This strategy can be effective in getting an accuser to retreat and blame themselves for what happened. In 2017, Freyd and other researchers said perpetrators of violence often use this strategy to confuse and silence victims. These researchers said women were more likely to be exposed to DARVO and that higher levels of exposure to DARVO during a confrontation about wrongdoing were “associated with increased perceptions of self-blame among the confronters.”
Freyd has referred to Trump as an example of someone who uses DARVO, along with R. Kelly, the singer and record producer who has been accused of sexual assault by many women, some of whom were teenagers at the time.
In addition to Trump’s comments on Carroll’s appearance, he has suggested that because Carroll described previous assaults in her book, she is less than credible. Trump said, “This is a woman who has also accused other men of things, as you know.”
In The Cut article, Carroll mentions an incident in college, where a boy took out a knife and pulled her sweatshirt and bra up as he pinned her down. Another assault came at the hands of a boss. Both assailants were unnamed. She also described being attacked by Les Moonves, the CBS executive who resigned last year after numerous sexual assault allegations, and writes about a Girl Scout director in Indiana by the name of Cam, who is now deceased, who sexually assaulted her when she was 12 years-old.
But multiple experiences of sexual assault don’t invalidate any one incident. Each person is not allotted one sexual assault incident in their lifetime in order to remain credible, and perpetrators of sexual violence don’t avoid people who have already been victimized. A 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey found that women who reported being raped before age 18 were twice as likely to report being raped as an adult. A 2005 article on revictimization said research suggests two of three people who are sexually victimized will be revictimized in their lifetimes.
Carroll had many well-justified fears in not coming forward earlier, as she explained in The Cut:
Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested, and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten, and attack them, never sounded like much fun.
Now, she knows what it feels like for those fears to come to fruition. Carroll said she has stayed off the internet since her excerpt was published last week, but that others have told her she is receiving death threats.