On Thursday morning, former FBI Director James Comey testified about his interactions with President Trump at great length in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. As tough and pointed questions were asked of him by the senators on the committee, some Twitter users who were watching the testimony on TV noticed a parallel: The tenor of the questions that some senators asked ― as well as Comey’s responses ― sounded eerily like the back and forth many victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence are subjected to.
Throughout the course of his 2+ hour testimony, Comey was asked why he didn’t stop President Trump from making inappropriate comments (“You’re big. You’re strong...There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.”); why he didn’t report the comments (”Did you tell the White House counsel it’s not an appropriate request? Someone needs to tell the president he can’t do these things.”); why he continued to take the president’s calls even after asking not to be left alone with the president (”You said...I don’t want to be in the room with him alone again, but you continued to talk to him on the phone. What is the difference in being in the room alone with him and talking to him on the phone alone?”); whether he found it odd that Trump asked him to have dinner one-on-one (”How unusual is it to have a one-on-one dinner with the president? Did that strike you as odd?”); whether he initiated the dinner (”Did you in any way initiate that dinner?”); and whether the President of the United States saying that he “hopes” something occurs is akin to giving a directive (”You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said.”).
Women on Twitter took notice of the rhetorical devices at play in these particular exchanges as well as the testimony as a whole, because those devices felt... familiar.
There are, of course, crucial differences in these situations: James Comey was not sexually harassed or assaulted by President Trump. It’s not unreasonable for a senator to question the way the FBI Director responded to the President of the United States or whether he found a particular action to be odd. FBI Director Comey was in a significant position of power ― a position that most survivors of assault and harassment are not in. And the trauma a victim of sexual violence, harassment or abuse experiences when their narrative and motives are questioned by an authority figure is not the same as what Comey experienced testifying under oath.
The reaction to a woman who says her superior sexually harassed her and the reaction to a man who says the president asked him to drop an FBI investigation are only similar insofar as they both activate entrenched power structures that are designed to protect the most powerful among us. This is the larger truth that the reaction on Twitter speaks to ― a truth that most women are forced to learn over the course of their lives.
Women inherently understand the thorny implications of being left alone in a room with a powerful man. We know that if we accuse that powerful man of wrongdoing, sexual or otherwise, our motives are likely to be questioned, and the blame will likely be shifted onto us rather than the alleged abuser. As my colleague Chloe Angyal pointed out on Twitter Thursday, crimes like sexual assault and sexual harassment are about power more than sex ― as are attempts to discredit the victims of these crimes.
The reaction to a woman who says her superior sexually harassed her and the reaction to a man who says the president asked him to drop an FBI investigation are only similar insofar as they both activate entrenched power structures that are designed to protect the most powerful among us.
This reality is reflected when alleged victims of sexual harassment or assault are asked things like: Are you sure he meant that the way you interpreted it? Why did you agree to be alone with him? Why did you continue talking to him after the incident occurred? Why didn’t you report the incident earlier?
At their core, these lines of inquiry are designed to undercut the victim’s story, and to place the responsibility for what happened onto the victim’s shoulders rather than the aggressor’s. (If you want an example of these power structures at play within the context of workplace sexual harassment, take Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Clarence Thomas.)
When power is asserted in inappropriate ways ― whether by a sleazy, run-of-the-mill boss or a President of the United States who is nervous about the “cloud” an investigation has cast over his administration ― the mechanisms at play to protect the more powerful party are ultimately the same.
This is why women, watching Comey be questioned by a panel of powerful men and a few select powerful women, found the whole scenario so devastatingly familiar. When a power structure springs into action to protect itself, some form of victim-blaming will inevitably follow. The crimes or transgressions may be very different, but the lesson remains: Power protects power, and if you got hurt, well, didn’t you kind of bring that on yourself?