Swift's testimony an inspiration for others

Taylor Swift won her court case against a DJ who groped her during a backstage meet-and-greet in 2013.
Taylor Swift won her court case against a DJ who groped her during a backstage meet-and-greet in 2013.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The singer's responses in court is a potent public example of how victims, often blamed for harassment, can defend themselves

NEW YORK • She has sold millions of albums and heard stadiums full of fans chant her lyrics at sold-out concerts around the world. But the Taylor Swift line that might resonate the loudest now is: "He grabbed my bare a**."

The pop superstar made that comment in a federal courtroom in Denver last week, as part of her testimony against David Mueller, a former radio host who sued her, claiming she falsely accused him of groping her during a backstage photo opportunity in 2013. She countersued for assault and battery.

Her confident and blunt testimony swayed the jury - on Monday, Swift, 27, won her case and Mueller, 55, lost his - and was shared widely across social media, where her responses were hailed as powerful.

"I'm not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault," she testified while being questioned by Mueller's lawyer, who argued that his client lost his job as a result of the incident. "Here we are years later, and I'm being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions - not mine."

Among those paying attention to the trial: lawyers and others who work with sexual assault survivors, who found in Swift's moment on the stand a potent public example of how to persevere in a fraught situation and perhaps a way to shift the national conversation around sexual assault.

"Experiencing harassment is an all-too-common thing, experiencing blaming and shaming is an all-too-common thing, but seeing someone so effectively dismantle those arguments, that was exciting," said Ms Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive of the National Women's Law Centre.

Ms Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, a non-profit that works with survivors of sexual violence, said she was "deeply thankful" for Swift's testimony and shared it with others considering testifying. "She was strong, poised and unapologetic," she said.

As a headline-making case, this was, for many survivors of sexual assault, a high-wattage mirror of their own experiences and an illustration of what might happen at their own court dates.

A 31-year-old woman who lives in Washington watched the trial unfold especially carefully. In April, she was raped by a co-worker, she said, and has not yet pursued criminal charges, in part because of the reaction when she told colleagues about what happened.

"People didn't readily believe it," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "They want to blame me."

But tracking Swift's case and seeing the singer respond forcefully to the same doubts, felt "empowering", she said.

"The language she used was really important," she added. "She didn't act submissive and polite like women often do. She was honest. The language she used was raw."

In cross-examination, Swift lobbed back questions by Mr Gabriel McFarland, Mueller's lawyer, that sought to sow doubt into her story - that Mueller had reached under her skirt and grabbed her backside while posing for a photo at a pre-concert meet-and-greet alongside his girlfriend at the time.

When Mr McFarland told Swift that she could have stopped the event if Mueller's actions had been so disturbing, she replied: "And your client could've taken a normal photo with me."

She called Mr McFarland by his first name during her cross-examination - a creative move to undercut his authority, said Ms Carly N. Mee, a lawyer who works with sexual assault survivors - and spoke in bold, unflinching language about the assault and its immediate effect on her. "It was like a light switched off in my personality," the singer said.

Ms Goss Graves said the examination was typical in a case like this, where the victim is often forced to defend her actions and blamed for the assault.

"Right now, the playbook for people who report harassment and discrimination is all about, what else could you have done to prevent the harassment and discrimination," she said. "What were you wearing? What were your actions before and after?"

Fear of reprisal or backlash is a major reason that sexual violence is underreported, she said.

What was not typical in Swift's case, she said, "was how effectively and persistently she reminded everyone of his conduct", in unfiltered language. It is not, she and other experts in the field said, an easy thing to do - and not an approach that all victims would feel comfortable adopting.

But the fact that the assault happened to Swift, a wealthy and powerful young woman with the outsize self-assurance of a celebrity, is a reminder that harassment can strike anyone. "Your belief in yourself isn't a protective shield to someone's inappropriate conduct," Ms Goss Graves said.

The music industry, like many others, is rife with tales of boundaries crossed and bodies violated. "As a band, we've sometimes ignored sexism, harassment, non-consensual flirting + homophobia aimed at us... too embarrassed to call it out," pop duo Tegan and Sara wrote on Twitter. "Even someone as powerful as @taylorswift13 lives within a system that pushes women to just ignore or put up with this behaviour."

Singer Nelly Furtado tweeted that she, too, had been in meet-and-greets "where radio staff attempted to cross lines".

For Swift, whose adoption of feminism as part of her public persona has been alternately applauded and questioned - she has given inspirational awards-show speeches and squabbled with other female singers - the trial provided a platform to support others.

"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 said in a statement after the verdict was read. "My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard."

The Washington woman said Swift's case was a model for young fans who lack her resources.

"If they can pick up a magazine and read what Taylor Swift said, she's showing you, it's not okay for someone to do this. I was lucky that I had support, but I hope this gives other people support."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Swift's testimony an inspiration for others'. Print Edition | Subscribe