Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

Guilty of Sex Abuse (But Not Rape?)

On Contemptuous Men and the Women who Fight Back

A short note about the subtitle before I begin: it is interesting how these gender terms hold sometimes in all their simplicity and binary force. Other than the title, when I use the term woman/en it is inclusive of trans, gender-variant, queer, and nonbinary identities, across and through racial and class lines.

Before I share a critique of the verdict in the E.J. Carroll rape case, I want to say that this is a significant win of sorts. A woman charges a former President with rape and she is able to demand some accountability. Yet, everyone knows he is a letch. He has no credibility. He lies and makes up facts all the time.

But, still, it takes massive energy, and determination, and stamina, and money on the plaintiff’s part to take him to court. He is found culpable, but not quite. The standard in civil cases is a preponderance of the evidence, meaning “more likely than not,” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And I guess the jury did not think it was “likely enough” that “sexual intercourse by force, including penetration” happened. So, there was no rape?

Photo by Lynn Friedman on Flickr

Meanwhile, I am wondering, how could anyone think that it was not “likely enough” in this case, given all that Carroll documented in her book, “What Do We Need Men For?” written several years earlier, and throughout the trial, and with her two corroborating witnesses. Afterall, just listen to what she was saying and all she went through to have an audience to say it to. And if that is not enough, just think about Trump. Really? Rape is “not likely?”

Let me also say that the news coverage and reporting following the verdict was as problematic to me as the actual court finding, which denies that a rape occurred. The verdict finds Trump guilty of sexual abuse and defamation. The initial descriptions and responses to the verdict celebrate Carroll’s win. Sexual assault was held accountable and there is no mention of rape. Even Carroll says she is “thrilled” with finally being heard and “winning her name back.” She says nothing of the rape charge, at least not yet.

I want to affirm the positivity of the verdict but also its limitations. The verdict is extremely important, and it is not enough. And, we must say both things simultaneously. The verdict denies that a rape occurred and the media responses concur through its silences about rape. The rape charge is eviscerated through silencing and each repetition of the verdict reproduces this.

We must recognize how long women have fought to have their bodies be respected and against sexual violence to them — harassment, assault, abuse, rape. Each form of degradation connects but are not one and the same. Black enslaved women supposedly could not be raped because they did not own and control their bodies. Part of being owned was having no bodily rights and yet raping occurred. The struggle for women’s bodies, including today’s trans struggles, especially for Black trans women, has been long and hard and inconsistent and circuitous.

So much of the struggle and success against sexual violence coalesced in the recent #MeToo movement. It was declarative and explosive. So can we draw on this power and just speak/write the silenced words and thoughts here? Trump is found guilty of sexual abuse and defamation; guilty of abusing and defaming, but not rape/ing? The jury distinguished sexual abuse, in which they found, and rape, which they did not. But when exactly does rape become sexual abuse, when the plaintiff actually says that his penis entered her vagina? What makes abuse possible in their minds and not rape?

And sexual abuse is exactly what? Manhandling a woman’s sexual parts, putting your fingers in her vagina, but it is not rape because the penis is not part of the assault? How often do you think this is a distinction that matters? But more to the point: did it happen here, in this instance with Trump? Why would Carroll have gone through all this and describe it as a rape if it did not happen? What would she have to do to prove it? Isn’t the difficulty of proving rape the age-old practice of not believing women? It is known that Trump is predator and misogynist. Many of the polls document that more than 50% of respondents believe this. Again, I am just wondering what it takes.

Rape is rape. It’s easy to know and too often impossible to prove legally.

The law is never sufficient because it is already biased in favor of misogyny and its whiteness. Misogyny targets women — cis, trans, non-binary, as well as trans men — with millions of guns. Most of the mass shootings have been carried out by men with histories of domestic and sexual violence. The law is no match for this. Liberalism is not enough. It is a beginning strategy but we must embrace a radicalism against the extra-legal targeting of all women.

Photo by Philipp Wuthrich on Unsplash

It is why anti-racist feminists must fight inside and outside the existing structures. It is the only way that Roe, the decision legalizing abortion, came to fruition.

The courts cannot fully embrace women’s truths because they too often rationalize and systematize the bias of misogyny that is built into law. You can read my “The Female Body and the Law,” to see the silencing and invisibility of the female body.

The Carroll trial story is about more than individuals even if the story is structured about them, told by them and for them. But our culture individualizes the political, and focuses on personalities, and silences collective narratives.

It is in part why the courts can never deliver freedom for us. It can move us forward, but this movement must be scrutinized. It is why speaking silences is crucial and necessary. As we speak we will find the new ways to push forward and find our liberation.

Photo by Alec Perkins on Wikimedia Commons

Neither liberalism nor neo-liberalism is a sufficient political strategy against sexual violence. A radical indictment of misogyny and all its structures and practices must be put in the bold to change. What that exactly looks like is a work in progress and the Carroll verdict has made perfectly clear how far we have traveled and how far we have yet to go.

So, this is a win for those of us in this battle. But only if we — freedom loving people — continue to dig deep for what is necessary for our liberation — for our bodies and their control and liberation. The courts cannot free us fully. Neither can the electoral arena. So we must remain inside and push hard, and build and organize outside simultaneously.

Zillah Eisenstein is a noted international feminist writer and activist and Professor Emerita, Political Theory, Ithaca College.  She is the author of many books, including “The Female Body and the Law” (UC Press, 1988), which won the Victoria Schuck Book Prize for the best book on women and politics; “Hatreds” (Routledge., 1996), “Global Obscenities” (NYU Press, 1998),  “Against Empire” (Zed Press, 2004), and most recently, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism” (Monthly Review Press, 2019).

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