Taylor Swift verdict should change how we discuss sexual harassment

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By Kristen Harris

I have been a fan of Taylor Swift since the eighth grade. I’ve spent a good amount of time that I was supposed to be doing other things learning every word to every song instead. I took up writing, in part, because of her. I used to find the “secret codes” in her lyrics and theorize who and what they were about. I’m sure many other young women my age have done the same.

Another thing I have in common with many other women my age is our experience with sexual harassment. For many, myself included, it’s been verbal. Someone yells at you as you’re trying to walk around the lake. A group of guys follows you and your friends when you ignore them. Sometimes, you’re not even worthy of words, just a loud honk or an animalistic noise. It’s a part of life that we’ve just come to deal with.

For some women, and men, too, however, the harassment becomes physical. That’s the nightmare that Taylor Swift was forced to live through in 2013 when Denver DJ David Mueller decided to reach up under her skirt and grab her during a photo-op.

Like many other victims, Taylor didn’t report the incident to the police. She told her mother and her security team, who told Mueller’s bosses, who fired him. No one in the press knew about it until Mueller himself filed a defamation suit against Taylor, her mother, and her radio liaison almost two years later.

If you spent anytime on social media in August, then you likely saw the story. Taylor Swift’s sexual harassment case was one of the biggest items in the news for a week. However, several major media outlets refused to call it what it was, instead dancing around reality with phrasing like “the Taylor Swift groping case,” or, in one particularly disgusting incident, “the Taylor Swift butt-grabbing trial” (shout-out to you, BuzzFeed).

Yet, when Mueller’s case was thrown out for lack of sufficient evidence and the jury ruled in Taylor’s favor for her countersuit, the entire internet seemed to rejoice.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

Even when I was at the height of my Taylor Swift obsession,  I was always careful to stay away from the slut-shaming discourse that surrounded her. Just because Taylor had more public romances than other people didn’t mean that she was somehow less of a person.

Criticizing Taylor’s romantic life has been a popular trend in entertainment media for a few years now. However, there is a stark difference between claiming she has too many boyfriends and claiming that she lied about sexual harassment to end someone else’s career.

When the case first went to court, I saw so many comments online calling Taylor an “attention whore.” While everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, I don’t think that’s the way we should be talking about victims of sexual assault.

In a post-trial statement released through her legal team, Taylor said, “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 anticipated the criticisms that others, both online and in the courtroom, would throw her way. Mueller’s attorney fought to reveal Taylor as a liar on the witness stand. That’s why she only sued for a $1. She has said through her legal team that she didn’t want to financially ruin him. Instead, she wanted to use her position of influence to be an example to other women who may be afraid to speak up about their own experiences with sexual assault.

The significance of Taylor’s victory is this: she had nothing to gain from this case and everything to lose.

This doesn’t sound like someone who’s doing anything for attention to me. In fact, Taylor had actively been trying to keep out of the spotlight for the previous year. In her statement, Taylor went on to say that she hoped to help “those whose voices should also be heard.” This is where I wanted to ask those online commenters what they thought Taylor had to gain from this if she was merely crying wolf. Why would she want the rest of her career to be defined by that one time she was sexually assaulted?

Think of it this way. Taylor’s mother specifically said that she didn’t report the incident to the police when it happened because she didn’t want it to define her daughter’s life. Taylor herself never spoke about it, sending any word through her legal team. Yet, on the witness stand, she was brave, she was clever, and she was strong.

That one dollar might be just a drop in the bucket for a multimillionaire recording artist, but the symbolism behind it was absolutely priceless. Taylor didn’t have to take the witness stand. She could’ve worked out a settlement outside of court, giving Mueller a couple million dollars to keep it out of the press. However, by putting herself in the middle of this case, and by taking it to court, she served as an example for the thousands of sexual assault victims who are too afraid of the backlash they’ll face if they stand up.

This victory should also serve as a wake-up call to the way sexual assault is discussed in the news and on social media. Sexual assault is no joke, but because she was Taylor Swift, making fun of her was okay. To some, her suffering didn’t matter because she was going to make money off of it.

She didn’t make any money off of it, though. In fact, Taylor concluded her statement with this: “Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organizations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves.”

She didn’t counter-sue David Mueller for attention. She’s Taylor Swift. If she wanted attention, she could’ve gone about it in any other way. Look at what happened to the internet when she took down her social media- it nearly out-eclipsed the solar eclipse.

Taylor did no interviews, made no social media posts, and gave no publicity to her own sexual assault case. She was, however, very specific with her language. She made it clear, through her legal representatives, that she was doing this to be a voice for those who were suffering in silence.

Yet, “news” organizations like BuzzFeed saw fit to criticize her for daring to speak up. Thousands of online commenters watered down her suffering to a rich white girl’s cry for attention. Maybe this is why so many are afraid to address their assaulters in court.

When Taylor won her case, the entire internet seemed to celebrate with her. However, I would argue that we should have been supporting her all along. Her status in life doesn’t diminish her experience with sexual assault. Harassment is harassment, and it certainly doesn’t discriminate. No one should try to silence anyone who’s brave enough to speak up and face his or her assaulter.

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