3 Real Women on What It’s Really Like to Stand up to a Groper
Taylor Swift has won her court case against a former radio host who groped her in 2013. We asked other women who have been assaulted how it felt to stand up to their attackers in their own powerful ways.
On Monday Taylor Swift won her court case against former radio talk show host David Mueller, when the jury ruled he groped the singer during a meet-and-greet before one of her concerts in 2013. Mueller actually sued Swift first, in 2015, saying he lost his job because of Swift’s allegations. Not one to be intimidated, Swift counter-sued, stating in court documents that Mueller "intentionally reached under her skirt, and groped with his hand an intimate part of her body in an inappropriate manner, against her will, and without her permission," People reported.
By all accounts from reporters inside the Denver courtroom, Swift remained confident on the stand. “I'm not going to let you or your client make me feel like this is my fault," she told Mueller's lawyer, according to People. Testifying in sexual assault cases can be extremely difficult, says Health's resident mental health expert Gail Saltz, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist who specializes in health, sex, and relationships. "There can be a lot of anxiety about conjuring up memories to place yourself back [at the time of the assault]," she tells Health. "The other side may be questioning you, trying to cast doubt on you, and to some degree, shaming you."
Because of those concerns, some women may never speak out about groping and other forms of sexual assault. Others may wait years to do so. But Dr. Saltz says that expressing what really happened can have benefits. "Being able to be authentic and truthful can be healthier than carrying [the assault] around, appearing fine, but not feeling fine on the inside," she says.
"Only one-third of women report any kind of sexual assault," Dr. Saltz continues. "Often that's because of shame, guilt that somehow they brought this on themselves, embarrassment, or stress. We rely on celebrities as role models, and Taylor Swift is taking some of the stigma out of reporting sexual assault."
Indeed, Swift hopes to use the troubling experience as a teachable moment. Her goal is to "serve as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts," according to court documents, People reported. After receiving the verdict, she thanked her attorneys for "fighting for me and anyone who feels silenced by a sexual assault" in a statement, and acknowledged that her case is unique in that she has the resources available to fight back in court. "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. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard. Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organizations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves."
Of course, it's likely even more trying for everyday women to fight back against groping, since most women don't have the privileges Swift does. Here are stories from three women who have stood up to gropers in their own powerful ways.
Erika Couto, 28, business and PR strategist
Couto regularly gives talks about consent, after she was groped by a colleague at age 22. "I had to privately confront my attacker because when I told my friends and the organizers of the event we were attending, they told me that it didn't count as assault because he was gay," says Couto.
Her gay male coworker approached her, looking like he was going to give her a hug, during an art festival Couto and friends were attending. "Instead, he groped my breast with one hand and slid his other hand under my dress to 'check if my panties were wet from being around so many women' because I'm a lesbian. I immediately jumped back and pushed him away. When my friends looked over at me because I had shoved him so hard, they told me to calm down because he's gay so 'he obviously didn't mean it like that.' But sexuality and gender orientation are irrelevant in instances of assault."
Couto immediately reported the assault to the organizers of the festival, but, Couto says, the man happened to be friends with them, so they shrugged off the assault instead of asking him to leave. Couto left right away. "I wondered if I was making too big of a deal of it, but I also wondered if he had done this before. I didn't know what else to do at the time, because if my own friends wouldn't see what he did as assault, I didn't think that the cops would care."
After a week, she knew she had to do something. She confronted her coworker outside of their office. "He didn't remember what he had done, but he apologized and admitted that it wasn't the first time that this had happened when he was inebriated. A few months later, he was fired for making inappropriate remarks to my boss in the workplace, again while inebriated. About six months after the incident, he asked to meet and apologized again; he had checked himself into rehab and gotten the help that he needed. Hearing that he was not only sober but had also taken thorough training on consent as a part of his own personal journey to rehabilitation was healing for the both of us."
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Michelle Stagg Worthen, 40, HR administrator
In September 2015, Worthen and her husband opened their home to "celebrate a friend with cancer and his courageous fight." It was a wonderful night, she tells Health, that ended in utter shock.
"The evening was fabulous and more than we had ever planned or hoped for, considering the circumstances. As the night drew to a close, I found myself exhausted and ready for bed. My husband and neighbors were enjoying themselves around our fire pit while a few who had planned to stay the night were preparing their beds. There was no greater sense of peace for me as I lay down."
The peace didn't last long. "Shortly after, I awoke in shock, fear, and disbelief," she says. A guest was looming over her, panting heavily in her ear, with one hand on her breast and the other penetrating her vagina. "I did not recognize him, his breath, or his touch," Worthen says. "The room was dark and quiet and I lay frozen. I tried to make sense of what was happening. I was in trouble and afraid of what he would do to me if I tried to escape him. I felt paralyzed and powerless. Thoughts of escaping him were racing through my mind, but I physically was not able to move nor scream."
When the perpetrator started to unbuckle his belt, Worthen broke free from the paralyzed feeling and was able to bolt from the room. The man ran out of the house without anyone seeing him. When she told her husband what happened, he called the perpetrator and demanded he return to their home, then called the police. Officers arrived and arrested the perpetrator after he returned. Worthen went to the emergency room.
While she had felt powerless in the moment, she knew she wanted to press charges. "Speaking out against your perpetrator is the most powerful thing you can do," she says. "Keeping quiet hides their actions and takes a stance that abuse is acceptable. I speak out to let others know it was not their fault and they should not be ashamed. I feel it's my only way to fight back. There is healing in using your voice. He will never take that from me."
Almost two years later, Worthen's court case is still ongoing, and it hasn't been an easy road. "I feel like just a number and another file in the drawer," she says of the legal system, "but taking a stand is more important to me." She feels her perpetrator is living free of his actions while she and her family take on daily challenges that come with surviving sexual assault. "The aftermath never goes away. In time, we learn to deal with a new way of life, but it is always there."
Reddit user ManichestBreastiny
After posting on the popular online forum in 2014, Reddit user ManichestBreastiny made headlines in Massachusetts for her story of standing up to a groper. Her post garnered hundreds of comments, many from other women who had also been groped or assaulted in other ways. She did not return Health's request for comment, but her story speaks for itself:
"I was walking out of the AMC Loews theater on Boston Common at about 9 p.m. on a Friday night. I live in Cambridge, and the other movie-goers I was with were going in the other direction, leaving me on my own. The entrance to the subway is across the street and down the block from the theater, so I was only outside for about two minutes before this happened, still well within view of dozens of people.
A man that looked to be at least 15 years older than myself who was walking near me in the same direction took an extra step to catch up to me and put his arm around my shoulder and grabbed my breast, and said 'Hey.'
I'm small. I'm blonde. I wear t-shirts, jeans, and old sneakers. I practice monstrous voices as a hobby. One of these things came out to my advantage. I pushed him off me, and in my most threatening bellow yelled, 'HOW DARE YOU TOUCH ME?'
The guy froze, his mouth open and face in total shock. I knew I caught him by surprise. It took me a few seconds, between him standing funny and the smell to realize that he crapped in his pants. I looked around, and saw a few other people staring, probably because I had just yelled at someone in a park, and made an awkward walk away from the guy. I was shaken from being grabbed, and got to the station as fast as I could walk.
This was not the first time I was groped, and it will likely not be the last. I can only hope that this one man will have felt some sort of primal fear and will never touch a person without their permission again."