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Will Taylor Swift’s sexual assault legal victory empower others?

August 15, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
When a radio host sued pop star Taylor Swift for defamation, Swift sued him back, winning $1 in damages. But there’s a greater victory: having a jury affirm her claim as a victim of sexual assault. Lisa Desjardins talks about the case and its impact with Judy Vredenburgh, president of Girls Inc., and Maya Raghu of the National Women's Law Center.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Yesterday, a jury in Denver, Colorado, awarded Taylor Swift one dollar in damages in a lawsuit over a groping allegation.

Lisa Desjardins is here to explain — Lisa.

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

Hari, that one dollar was the amount that Taylor Swift requested. It was her countersuit, after a radio host sued the singer for defamation when she spoke publicly about the incident. He claimed that she cost him his job, but the court sided with Swift.

The verdict came after four days of testimony, with a photo of the incident as the only piece of physical evidence. It shows former radio station host David Mueller posing with 27-year-old Swift before a Denver concert four years ago. His hand appears behind Swift just below her waist.

Swift says Mueller grabbed her bare bottom and didn’t let go when she lurched away. Mueller said he may have touched her ribcage, but nothing else, but the jury didn’t believe him.

Swift’s case and experience is not new. One in five college-age women in the United States say they have experienced some form of sexual assault. That’s according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

But Swift’s stature in the music industry and society gives her a position and podium most women who’ve been sexually assaulted don’t have. And with that comes hundreds of young fans following the case’s proceedings outside the courtroom, and millions more on social media.

WATCH: Taylor Swift shake, shake, shakes up a slowing music industry

CAROLINE TURNER, Taylor Swift Fan: I was really happy because Taylor Swift is one of my role models. And when she stood up, like, by being in that courtroom, she’s standing up for women all around the world.

LISA DESJARDINS: Swift’s attorney says he hopes the case sets an example for young girls and boys.

DOUGLAS BALDRIDGE, Taylor Swift’s Attorney: Not just a win, but something that can make a difference for my kids, your kids, all of us, my son, my daughters, where the lines are, what’s right, what’s wrong.

LISA DESJARDINS: After being awarded the one dollar payment Swift requested in damages, she put out the following statement, saying: “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.”

Swift’s victory comes in a year of mixed results for women pursuing sexual assault cases. Such cases have ousted FOX News host Bill O’Reilly and founder Roger Ailes, while the singer known as Kesha has repeatedly continually rejected repeatedly lost her attempts to end her contract with a former producer whom she says sexually assaulted her.

With an estimated two out of three of all sexual assault cases still going unreported, Swift says she hopes to give a voice to those who feel silenced by sexual assault, and she plans to donate to groups that help victims.

And I’m now joined by Maya Raghu, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, where she focuses on women’s issues in the workplace, including sexual harassment. And Judy Vredenburgh, she is the president and CEO of Girls, Inc., an advocacy group that works to equip girls to navigate gender, economic and social barriers in life. She joins us from New York.

Ladies, thanks to both of you for joining us tonight.

Maya, I want the start with you. And let’s talk about our justice system.

This was a victory for Swift today, but what do we know about any shift in judges and juries in how they look at most victims or most people who bring claims of sexual assault in court?

MAYA RAGHU, National Women’s Law Center: Well, many people think that survivors of sexual harassment or sexual assault lie or make false allegations.

So it makes it very difficult for victims to come forward and talk about what happened to them. There’s a lot of fear, fear for their safety and fear for consequences and retaliation in the workplace or at school.

But the truth is that it’s very difficult to come forward and report sexual harassment or assault, and there are huge risks for coming forward and doing so, whether people go to the police, whether they report to an employer or to a school, or whether they bring a lawsuit.

LISA DESJARDINS: Judy, I want to ask you. You work with young girls.

How much of an issue is this to them, and how certain do they feel about taking a stand in situations like this?

JUDY VREDENBURGH, President, Girls, Inc.: Yes, we asked our girls, what are the top issues that you’re facing?

And 70 percent of girls, viewing a list of 12 issues, identified as their number one issue bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault. So, it’s a real issue for girls, absolutely.

LISA DESJARDINS: But do you get a sense that they feel certain about what is acceptable and when they should be advocates for themselves, when they should stand up for themselves?

JUDY VREDENBURGH: Yes.

Girls know when they have been violated, when there’s been inappropriate behavior, inappropriate touching. They absolutely know that. I think that a case like this becomes a surrogate case on behalf of all girls, including girls from low-income communities who wouldn’t have the resources to fight for themselves, and it says to girls that it’s not acceptable.

You can stand up and speak out when you feel something that is not right.

LISA DESJARDINS: Maya, just a few minutes ago, you mentioned two terms, sexual harassment and sexual assault. This was a case of sexual assault, is what Taylor Swift was mentioning.

But I wonder about definitions here. Sexual assault is a very broad term. That could mean anything from groping to rape. How are we defining that as nation right now, and is that helpful? Do we need to talk about this in more clear terms?

MAYA RAGHU: Absolutely.

And I think that’s one of the reasons that this case is so important, because it is continuing a conversation that began earlier this year with the other high-profile sexual harassment and sexual assault cases that we have been hearing about.

And it’s helping people understand that these sorts of behaviors and crimes exist on a continuum. I think a lot of people, when they hear about sexual assault, they immediately think of rape. But they’re not thinking necessarily about groping, as you pointed out, which is incredibly serious.

But it tends to be minimized, and people might say, oh, it was nothing, or don’t let it bother you, when, in fact, it’s incredibly traumatic.

I also think that we tend to separate sexual harassment and sexual assault. Sexual harassment is in the workplace, it’s at school, but it’s not criminal. But, actually, if sexual assault or groping or rape occurs in the workplace or at school, that is sexual harassment.

LISA DESJARDINS: So, that’s talking about the language.

Judy, I want to talk you about resources. Obviously, Taylor Swift is a woman of wealth. She has power in her industry, and she acknowledges that, that she has privilege.

What about the girls that you work with, everyday women? When they encounter something like this, what is the reality for how they could handle this? Do you think they would end up in the same situation with Taylor Swift necessarily, or are there more barriers for them?

JUDY VREDENBURGH: I believe that Taylor Swift is a role model, but they have role models among themselves.

There are girls who are abused, assaulted every single day, and creating a safe place where those girls can come forward, tell the truth about what happened to them, and be emboldened to tell the truth to power, to not accept this is really important.

And so we create at Girls, Inc., safe places where girls can openly share what they’re dealing with and get the support they need to come forward and not allow that to happen to them in the future and certainly not to blame themselves.

LISA DESJARDINS: Maya, are different women treated differently? Are there barriers for women, even those who decide to come forward, when they are going to courts, when they are dealing with the legal system or at the workplace with these claims?

MAYA RAGHU: Absolutely. There are all kinds of barriers. Some of them are overt. They might be discriminatory. And, sometimes, they’re subtle or implicit biases.

There’s also economic barriers to coming forward. As you pointed out, Taylor Swift is a wealthy person who has a lot of resources and could afford to bring a lawsuit. But that’s definitely not the case for many, many survivors.

And if you’re working a low-wage job in retail and you’re supporting a family, coming forward and reporting sexual assault, and then losing your job is devastating for the entire family.

And what ends up happening is that people are forced to stay silent about this situation, and it becomes the price that people have to pay to keep a job or to stay in school.

LISA DESJARDINS: Do you see more women reporting in workplace situations like this, or no, right now?

MAYA RAGHU: I would say that, definitely, in the last couple years, we have seen an increase in people reaching out to us for information and assistance about sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I think the conversation in this country in the last couple of years, because of high-profile cases, has certainly inspired and empowered many women and men to come forward and talk about what’s happened to them and seek justice, and, more importantly, also started thinking about, how do we hold perpetrators accountable and make sure that they’re bearing the consequences for this behavior?

Because, otherwise, it’s going to be impossible to prevent this from happening in the first place.

LISA DESJARDINS: Judy, briefly, I talked to a mother and a 13-year-old today who told me they had different reactions to this. One wasn’t surprised that Taylor Swift came out ahead. That was the 13-year-old. She said she felt that, most times, victims win in these cases. The mother felt differently.

Very briefly, is there a generational shift going on here?

JUDY VREDENBURGH: Yes, I think the public is ahead of institutions, and young people understand that this is not appropriate behavior. This is not something to hide about or feel ashamed about, but to speak out about.

So, I do think there’s a change, and we’re seeing the public not accept unhealthy touching, violation, of respecting the dignity of every person. It’s not acceptable.

LISA DESJARDINS: Judy Vredenburgh …

JUDY VREDENBURGH: And Title IX enforcement in the schools is very important.

LISA DESJARDINS: Judy …

JUDY VREDENBURGH: Sexual harassment is — happens at schools, and that’s not acceptable, and we have to make sure that that enforcement is real.

LISA DESJARDINS: Judy Vredenburgh from Girls, Inc., thank you so much.

And, Maya Raghu, thank you also for joining us.

MAYA RAGHU: Thank you.

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