E. Jean Carroll in 2006, as she wanted people to see her. Image credit: julieannesmo / Wikimedia Commons
The jury took only three hours to deliver a verdict.
On May 9, 2023, a Manhattan jury awarded journalist E. Jean Carroll $5 million in her civil suit against Donald J. Trump, finding him liable for battery and defamation. This is not the first verdict against the Former Guy, and it won’t be the last: it’s safe to say that the winning has officially stopped.
While the jury did not find that Trump had raped Carroll, it did find that he had sexually abused her, a felony in New York State. And because of that finding, the jury also concluded that Trump had defamed Carroll when he posted on his Truth Social account that she had lied about his violent attack on her in a Bergdorf Goodman department store dressing room in the mid-1990s.
Let’s start by saying that it requires great courage for any woman to tell a close friend, much less the entire American public, that she has been sexually assaulted. And it requires even more courage when the man who did it has not just an entire political party behind him, a party that seems to want to return him to the White House, but also an army of racist, misogynist psychopaths networked on social media and eager to attack anyone he targets.
But as we know, returning to these memories was particularly difficult for Carroll. She had done her best to forget that this had happened. She had initially refused to think about the assault as rape until her friend Lisa Birnbaum used the word. Most of all, she prided herself on being a tough cookie who could handle whatever the rough-and-tumble, late-twentieth-century New York journalism world threw at her.
Carroll didn’t want to be anybody’s victim—no one does. It’s humiliating. And as over half of women and one in three men will tell you, being sexually assaulted can make a person, man or woman, feel dehumanized, as though they have been transformed into a powerless object.
This fear of social death is one reason so many rapes go unreported. When asked in the deposition phase whether she had ever considered coming forward with her story about being assaulted by Trump, Carroll responded: “Never.”
“Just … ” Carroll paused, then began again. “I’m going to say something that even surprises me,” she said:
Because women who have been raped are looked at in this society as less, are looked at as spoiled goods, are looked at as rather dumb to let themselves get attacked. I mean even you have to say did you scream? I mean every woman who admits to being attacked has to answer that question, why didn’t you scream, why did you come forward when you did, why didn’t you come forward before and so no, I didn’t … I would have been fired.
I would have been fired.
This isn’t just a metaphor. Women’s fears that they will be punished for seeking help after a sexual assault are real and, mainly when the predator is powerful, are accurate. The multiple accusations surrounding former film impresario Harvey Weinstein eventually came from numerous women (including prominent actress Anne Heche) who were fired. They sometimes blackballed in the industry after rejecting his advances. Many other women knew that their future in the industry depended on actively facilitating Weinstein’s sexual assaults and coercion, turning a blind eye to them, or remaining silent about what he had done to them.
Yet, courageous women did eventually speak out against Weinstein. And it is no coincidence that they did so in an environment where a man who boasted about sexually assaulting women was about to become President of the United States.
“This is the #MeToo movement coming full circle,” Michelle Goldberg said last night on MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word, an idea she elaborated on in May 9’s issue of the New York Times. Goldberg points out that it was Trump, boasting about sexually assaulting women on a taped Access Hollywood confession released in 2015, who not only sparked this new wave of revulsion about sexual predation among women but renewed the belief that rape was an urgent political problem.
That tape, which did not derail Trump’s quest for the presidency, has now returned to haunt him. A legal team headed up by feminist attorney Roberta Kaplan argued in court that the Access Hollywood tape was a key piece of evidence that corroborated Carroll’s account of being sexually assaulted.
By using Trump’s words as evidence against him, Kaplan may be paving the way for other felony cases quickly coming down the pipe. The Former Guy has always played a double game with his outrageous utterances. First, he uses them to whip up the most extreme elements of the GOP with boastful claims about his power. Then, when called out on his vulgarity and abusiveness, he insists that it is all just a performance, a game, or a joke.
On May 9, a jury said no to that strategy, helped along to that position by the defendant’s compulsion to defend himself. When deposed, Trump was asked to listen to the Access Hollywood tape, whether he could verify that the voice was his and whether he stood by his statements. And he defended those statements as accurate, “for stars.” As Kaplan asked him, “It’s true with stars that they can grab women by the p***y?”
“Well, if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true,” Trump said. “Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately, or fortunately.”
Mr. Trump was then asked if he considered himself “to be a star.”
“I think you can say that, yeah,” he agreed.
This, Carroll’s legal team argued successfully, was a confession that Trump habitually and violently assaulted women and that it supported Carroll’s account of the assault at Bergdorf’s where he literally, it seems, grabbed her by the p***y.
And in fact, Carroll did lose her job after filing the civil suit against Trump, even years after the event. She testified that she believed the two to be directly related because she is now “looked at as a woman who’s untrustworthy, looked at now as a woman who can’t be believed. I’m looked at,” she continued, “as a woman who was stupid and dumb enough to have happen to her what happened to her.”
So Carroll, although she crucially confessed the assault to her friend Lisa Birnbaum minutes after it occurred, may not have been wrong to keep the assault to herself. Why would you go into a dressing room in the lingerie department of a department store with a strange man, Miss Carroll?
It’s an old and exhausting story. “Women had never dared to talk openly about a crime against their physical integrity that was often met with disbelief and which carried a heavy load of shame,” radical feminist journalist and activist Susan Brownmiller reflected in a preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of her pathbreaking best-seller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975). And although women often froze, as Carroll described her first reaction, or acted in ways that suggested submission to, or complicity with, sexual brutality, that was a normal response to terror, not collaboration. As Brownmiller learned from radical feminist consciousness-raising groups, an experience that led her to write Against Our Will, “Most victims feared their attackers were going to kill them.” They still do.
Carroll has never said that she feared Trump would kill her. Still, she vividly described the sensation of having him use his height and weight to render her immobile, how he ripped her tights off and shoved a body part—Carroll admitted to uncertainty as to whether it was his hand or his penis (“grab ’em by the p***y”)—into her vagina.
And then her courage returned, and she unfroze. Then, she said, as journalist Nina Burleigh reported for Rolling Stone in 2019, “It was a fight.”
Like many people, she learned that the fight was not over when she escaped from that dressing room. Subsequently, the heterosexual, fun-loving Carroll lost her capacity to trust and be intimate with men or to feel sexual desire at all. As she described the transformation in her deposition in response to a question from a woman on Trump’s legal team, “I wanted to meet people. I just … the music had stopped.”
Most painfully, Carroll revisited what she had lost when that same lawyer, insinuating that she had been attracted to Trump, asked what kinds of men she liked. “Men who live fascinating lives, men who are kind,” Carroll responded. “Men who have a great sense of humor, men who are fun to be with, men who love animals, men who love their mothers, men who like women, men who like other men, not sexually but like, you know, athletic men, adventurous men.”
Not surprisingly, Trump’s team also asked Carroll if she was asexual, whether she had “ever tried to fix that in any way, meaning getting help,” when she last had sex, if successful men turned her on, and whether she had “ever questioned if what happened in that dressing room was rape.”
It takes work to stigmatize victims of sexual assault. But Americans are as, or more, likely to believe that vulnerable people have brought violence on themselves as they ever have been. This week, the Murdoch-owned New York Post inferred that dancer Jordan Neely would not have been choked to death had he not checked out of a mental health program prematurely. Texas’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott inferred that victims of a mass shooting in his state would not have been killed if they, and the shooter, had not been immigrants. That same state’s Republican Senator, Ted Cruz, argued that the 19 students and two teachers killed would not have been killed had administrators secured the school and staff been armed. And the deaths of countless Black men and women at the hands of the police have been explained away by a poor decision: being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, while doing or saying the wrong thing.
Similarly, victims of sex crimes are often suspected of bringing it on themselves or lying for profit. No one can or should tell someone who has been sexually assaulted not to be afraid to go public with an accusation.
And in the case of Trump, a self-appointed, authoritarian messiah with legions of violent and armed supporters, that fear reasonably spreads beyond the accuser. So, on May 9, Judge Lewis Kaplan (no relation to Roberta Kaplan, Carroll’s lawyer) warned those on the nine-person jury that they would be wise not to disclose their identities and warned them “not to identify anyone else who sat on this jury.”
It would be foolish to tell anyone not to be afraid of Donald Trump: the viciousness and cruelty with which he treated Carroll and other women is the tip of the iceberg. And it would be foolish not to fear the consequences of being widely known as a person who has been raped.
E. Jean Carroll felt that fear. She probably still does. And yet, she dared to stand up for herself and us, anyway. Taking Trump to court continued the fight that began in that Bergdorf dressing room. It not only required the courage to come out about the assault but the additional and equally unwelcome step of admitting that she had lost access to something precious—access to her own sexuality—that she would never regain.
If only the Republican party had the courage of E. Jean Carroll.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie, on May 10, 2023.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).