“Shark Week,” spanking and sinister threats: Stormy Daniels’s (née Stephanie Clifford) long-awaited “60 Minutes” interview was by turns amusing and appalling, but was ultimately more smoke than fire when it came to new revelations about her alleged affair with the future president.
In fact, the most revealing part of Daniels’ interview wasn’t really about Donald Trump at all - it concerned something much larger.
Early in her conversation with host Anderson Cooper, Daniels described the circumstances around her alleged first sexual encounter with Trump in July 2006, after she had joined him for dinner in his Lake Tahoe hotel suite.
Anderson Cooper: What happened next?
Stormy Daniels: I asked him if I could use his restroom and he said, “Yes, you know, it’s through those - through the bedroom, you’ll see it.” So I- I excused myself and I went to the- the restroom. You know, I was in there for a little bit and came out and he was sitting, you know, on the edge of the bed when I walked out, perched.
Anderson Cooper: And when you saw that, what went through your mind?
Stormy Daniels: I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, “Ugh, here we go.” (LAUGH) And I just felt like maybe- (LAUGH) it was sort of- I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, “well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.”
Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.
Stormy Daniels: Yes.
Daniels went on to note that she was not attracted to Trump, had not wanted to have sex with him, yet went on to do so anyway, not even speaking up to ask him to use protection.
Despite Daniels’ laughter, the picture she paints is extremely sad. It’s a damning example of America’s broken sexual ethic, internalized.
It should be obvious that a woman alone in a man’s room is not obligated to have sex with said man. Being unchaperoned in the presence of the opposite gender should not necessarily be a “bad situation.” No one “deserves” unwanted sex.
Yet this tendency toward self-blame after unwanted sexual encounters - “Whatever bad thing happened is really my fault; I was asking for it” - is incredibly common among women of all ages and backgrounds - even award-winning adult actress and director Stormy Daniels, who in all other arenas presents herself as strong, self-confident and in control.
This self-loathing perception is consistently reinforced by all-too-common forms of sexual assault apologia. As the #MeToo movement grew in volume this winter, one of the most common responses to women’s reports of unwanted sexual pressure was a reaffirmation of the so-calle d “Mike Pence Rule,” after the vice president’s stated policy against being alone with members of the opposite sex. In its defense, the rule may have originally been a prudent attempt to avoid the potential appearance of sexual impropriety. But in practice, it reinforces a flawed understanding of the possibility of male self-control or female agency. If a woman is in a room alone with a man, well - something is bound to happen. And whose fault is that?
When sexual assault is adjudicated, the burden of blame is consistently placed on women. “Well, you shouldn’t have been drinking.” “Maybe you shouldn’t have been wearing that.” “You put yourself in that position, that’s what happens.” While it’s reasonable to take precautions against potential harms, it’s worth questioning what message that sends to women - who must then always be on guard, or else at fault - and to men, who are then socially sanctioned to push as hard as they like, with little in the way of repercussion.
Throughout her “60 Minutes” interview, Daniels repeatedly stated that she was not a victim, that she consented to have sex with Trump and that she didn’t want her story to be misused. And indeed, she has every right to define her own experiences.
But it still raises questions. What can consent really mean in a situation in which the power dynamic is so skewed and social pressure so confounding? And how does a sense of personal agency enter into the situation? How do we begin to assure women that they “deserve” more, inside and outside of the bedroom? Donald Trump did not sexually assault Stormy Daniels. But it’s clear that in this encounter and in our society at large, something else has gone deeply wrong.
Christine Emba is a columnist with The Washington Post.