This post contains a graphic description of sexual assault.
Melania Trump, Donald Trump’s wife, has claimed in a new interview that women “need evidence” if they are going to claim that they have been abused. Their word is not enough; by implication, they should be disbelieved if they cannot produce evidence. Curiously, she does not specify what she would consider evidence. Trump’s claim is a familiar and common one when it comes to reported abuse. Her expectation of evidence was offered in the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
During Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Christine Blasey Ford reported that the then-nominee had attempted to rape her in high school; conservatives insisted that Ford was lying and then, after her testimony proved much more believable than they had originally expected it to be, instead decided that she must have been mistaken in her memory of what happened.* They, much as Trump is doing above, pointed to her having insufficient evidence to bolster their own dismissals of her. They claimed, as Trump is doing above, that accusations made without sufficient evidence were both reckless and risked men’s reputations; they begged America to believe that those reputations trumped all other concerns.
Trump’s insistence that victims be able to prove that they were assaulted is the broader cultural cancer that enables and encourages abuse. This sickness, as often seen throughout this nation’s history whenever abuse is reported, almost always leans on a combination of victims who are unable to produce sufficient evidence of their own and a concern for reputational damage to accused men to dismiss claims themselves as being false.
Abuse is, of course, often extremely difficult to prove, specifically because of the lack of evidence it so often involves. Acknowledging this is not the same as insisting that abuse never occurred. Making the issue one of evidence, rather than one of occurrence, is how we constantly find ourselves in the midst of nightmarish abuse accusations made worse by people who systematically refused to believe what was being reported to them. There are obviously both enormous institutional (everything that both the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts did) and individual (including both Jerry Sandusky and, more recently, Larry Nassar) crises that occurred specifically because victims were disbelieved, often because they lacked sufficient evidence, and occasionally because investigating further risked the accused’s reputation.
Trump’s implication, although she lacks the courage to say so directly, is that victims without evidence should not be believed. In October 2016, in the aftermath of her husband acknowledging having abused women, she said, “And to accuse, no matter who it is, a man or a woman, without evidence is damaging and unfair.” Note here the total lack of concern with what really happened; note also that her husband’s acknowledgment of his own treatment of women, offered boastfully and proudly, is not considered evidence. What matters to Trump is how unfair it is to claim that abuse happened without having enough evidence to prove that it did. She believes plainly that victims lacking that evidence should remain quiet, condemned to a life of silent suffering. And their abusers? They should be rewarded as long as they abused carefully enough.
But Trump’s demand for evidence is worth understanding from a second, darker perspective. Those making the claim, Trump included, imply that there is justice for those capable of producing enough evidence; accusers who cannot, they argue, are probably lying, but those who can, those with more evidence, will surely be believed. But that claim is itself outrageous and is undermined by the facts of the matter. There are, frankly, too many examples of the availability of evidence not mattering in even the slightest, showing not the effectiveness of the justice system, but rather, its catastrophic and voluntary impotence.
Women who do come forward to report abuse are often dismissed out of hand, their claims treated as stories, their abusers’ denials treated as fact. Women who come forward to endure rape kits often see those kits then put on shelves, never to be followed up on again. Women who come forward run into institutional phalanxes dedicated solely to making their claims go away. Women who come forward run into prosecutors who excuse away both their claims and their accompanying evidence anyway.** And when women come forward to report abuse, they still run into judges who are far more concerned with what they can do to make sure that certain accused men do not pay too high a price for their behavior.
That last link is perhaps the most instructive. It involves a case in Alaska in which Justin Schneider – a man who pled guilty to choking a woman to unconsciousness and then masturbating on her – was sentenced to two years in prison, with one being suspended, and the other having already been served during his house arrest while awaiting trial. To make that clearer, Scheider will not spend a day in jail. Schneider was saved by Alaska’s laws; they do not consider masturbating on a person to be a sexual crime. Here is a description of the crime itself:
Details about the case were graphic enough that some local news outlets placed editor’s notes at the tops of their stories warning readers.
The victim “said she could not fight him off, he was too heavy and had her down being choked to death,” Anchorage police Detective Brett Sarber wrote in a criminal complaint obtained by KTVA News last year. “[She] said she lost consciousness, thinking she was going to die.”
When she regained consciousness, the man zipped up his pants, gave her a tissue and “told her that he wasn’t really going to kill her, that he needed her to believe she was going to die so that he could be sexually fulfilled,” Sarber wrote in the complaint.
The victim spoke to police immediately, giving them both a description of Schneider and his license plate number. She identified him in a photo lineup. None of it mattered. Michael Grannik, the prosecutor in Schneider’s case, claimed he made the plea deal because Schneider had no criminal record and claimed to be willing to rehabilitate. He told Schneider, “to be on notice that this is his one pass.” Nobody is denying what happened; nobody is claiming it did not; everybody agrees that Schneider did it. And yet the system that victims are supposed to count on instead bent over backward to make sure that Schneider endured nothing substantive as a result of his behavior. Schneider claimed to be appreciative of the prosecutor’s offer, saying that he would like to “emphasize how grateful I am for this process. It has given me a year to really work on myself and become a better person and a better husband and a better father.” Schneider made no mention of the victim. Neither did the judge, who told Schneider that he was appreciative of his comments. One wonders what it would have taken for all involved to decide otherwise. One wonders if it even crossed their minds.
It is, of course, possible that Melania Trump does not know any of this; she lives a gilded, gold-plated lifestyle entirely untethered from reality. But it is far more likely that she both knows something of this reality and simply does not care, instead telling herself – like so many others who rush to the ramparts whenever anybody has the temerity to suggest that our justice system as presently constructed is fundamentally unable to deal with abuse – one of two things: that the abuse never happened, or that the victim had simply misunderstood what had happened. And then she returned to worrying about reputations instead.
So it is that this bone-deep cultural cancer – no matter how many times its devastating folly is conclusively proven – continues to go untreated. It is almost impossible to imagine the crime that would cause any sort of correction at all.
*One of the parts of Ford’s testimony involves her remembering what it was like when Kavanaugh laughed at her fear. Collins dismissed this out of hand when she insisted that Ford was simply misremembering what had happened. Oddly, Collins has her own memories of threatening men and the laughter that followed their behavior.
**This is particularly jarring, as it involves Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor Republicans brought in to question Ford, excusing away abuse committed by former NBAer Kevin Johnson. Mitchell’s conclusion that she would not have prosecuted Kavanaugh, presented by Kavanaugh’s defenders as some sort of objective conclusion, seems slightly different given her own history of refusing to pursue famous abusers.