Last week, after members of Congress took turns reading the complete court statement of the woman sexually assaulted by a Stanford University swimmer, half a dozen of them were so struck by her words that they decided to speak out about their own experiences and those of women close to them.
“We were all discussing that sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace had happened to us” over the years, too, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster , a New Hampshire Democrat, said in an interview on Tuesday evening, but “none of us had ever spoken about it, either.
“And that’s how you wind up with a judge who thinks this is an appropriate response,’’ she said of Judge Aaron Persky’s decision to sentence Brock Turner, who was found guilty of three felonies in the attack outside a Stanford frat party, to only six months in a county jail.
Only Kuster did stand to speak about something that had happened to her personally, on the House floor on Tuesday night.
For all of our talk about how strong victims are, we still tend to behave as though powerful women cede something when they acknowledge having ever been so powerless. So it was stunning to hear any member of Congress dare to detail having been sexually assaulted three times — once as a Dartmouth student and twice as a young Hill staffer.
Kuster did so, she said, to show that “whether you’re a student or a professional or even a member of Congress,” you’re neither immune nor alone.
Just before her speech, the 59-year-old lawyer said she hoped she’d get through the thing without crying, and she did.
Several colleagues who had planned to be there had been held up by weather and another by a family emergency when she rose, just after 9 p.m., and said, “I’m going to start my remarks tonight 40 years ago, on a cold winter night,” when as an 18-year-old at a fraternity dance, “one young man assaulted me in a crude and insulting way, and I ran, alone,” into the dark.
“I have never forgotten that night. I was filled with shame, regret, humiliation, while he was egged on by everyone at that party standing by.
“Several years later, I working as a legislative assistant right here on Capitol Hill and I was assaulted again, this time by a distinguished guest of the United States Congress. I was 23 years old, and … I did not say a word to anyone. And in fact until I wrote these words to share with you tonight, I had never told anyone this story. My family didn’t know, my husband, my children, my friends.”
In the interview, Kuster said that her then-boss had taken her and this visiting VIP to a restaurant where, seated between them, her boss’s guest put his hand up her skirt and groped her.
“I just froze — I didn’t even have the presence of mind to go to the ladies room; I was so shocked at where his hand was that I just carried on.’’ It never even felt safe to talk about what had happened later, she said, “because of the shame and humiliation you feel even though that doesn’t make any sense at all; the perpetrator should be humiliated.’’
The third incident, just a few months later, was during a mugging by a stranger, also on Capitol Hill.
Even now, she told me, “I have nightmares about being grabbed in the night and I wake up screaming 40 years later.”
In her floor speech, she said she was telling these stories “not because they are remarkable or unique. Sadly, I tell these stories because they are all too common.”
She wasn’t quite alone on the floor.
Proving that feminists come in all shapes and sizes, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) a longtime prosecutor and judge, thundered that, “The defendant always has an excuse to blame the victim. ‘Well, she came on to me.’ Or, ‘It was what she was wearing.’ Or, ‘She was drunk.’ Or, ‘She was under the influence of narcotics.’ ‘She didn’t resist.’ ‘She didn’t scream.’ ‘She didn’t tell me no.’ ‘She didn’t run for help.’ The defendants in these cases always blame the victim.”
Rep. Katherine Clark , D-Mass., spoke in general terms about the need to take victims seriously, and Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., said that when she was in college, she heard about plenty of victims who felt that if they reported, they’d only be called to account for what they’d been wearing or drinking or expecting. “All of these memories came rushing back to me,” Bustos said, and made her wonder, “Why be congresswomen if we can’t help other women?”
It’s easier to talk about anonymous friends, of course, than about assaults on one’s own body. And even after all the outrage about the Stanford case, legislation on how colleges report these crimes is going nowhere.
Yet Kuster decided that talking about her own experiences might help change that — and meanwhile “let all the women out there know that we have their backs.”
Or she does, anyway.