Nearly 20 million people watched former F.B.I. director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate last Thursday. In the press coverage that followed, a problematic, but familiar, metaphor emerged: Comey was compared, on Twitter and elsewhere to a sexual-harassment victim, with Trump as his harasser and certain Republican senators as defense attorneys obstructing justice from being served. “Anyone who’s been targeted by a sexual harasser knows what Comey went through. Right down to feeling cowardly for not saying ‘no’ outright,” tweeted media pundit Ana Marie Cox. “This is basically a domestic abuse case,” tweeted Samantha Bee. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum compared Comey’s recollection of his strange dinner with Trump to the ongoing sexual assault allegations emerging from Fox News.
All of these people are wrong.
Trump did not sexually, physically, or emotionally abuse the former F.B.I. director (as far as we know). What Trump did to Comey wasn’t domestic violence — it was the manifestation of an increasingly hostile and polarized political climate led by a dangerously unhinged person in the most powerful position on Earth. Trump is not Comey’s abusive husband, and the Senate is not an aggressive lawyer suggesting Comey had too much to drink or was asking to be abused by the president. And, most crucially, Comey is not a victim.
Comey was abruptly fired from his job and aggressively questioned during his two-hour-long testimony, but he was never robbed of his agency or his bodily autonomy.
And yet, the metaphor persists. Comparing a congressional testimony to the trial of a sexual assault victim is at best lazy and at worst harmful. Comey was abruptly fired from his job and then aggressively questioned during his two-hour-long testimony, but he was never robbed of his agency or his bodily autonomy. He was asked to give his side of the story to Congress, and millions of people tuned in to watch — more people watched Comey’s testimony than game three of the NBA finals the night before.
Meanwhile, just 31 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Approximately 1 percent of all sexual assaults in the U.S. are referred to prosecutors — often because the victim thinks authorities won’t do anything to help them or fears retaliation from their assailant — meaning most rapists never see a day in court and most survivors never get a chance to seek justice. When survivors do seek justice, they’re often subject to intense cross-examination by defense attorneys, during which their character is repeatedly called into question.
Comey, on the other hand, is being hailed as a patriot, often by the same feminist #resistance types who blamed him for Clinton’s devastating loss in the presidential election.
This repugnant take — a lionized political figure reimagined as an abuse victim — came into prominence late last year, when Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca rose to internet stardom after writing an op-ed titled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” In it, she claimed the then-president-elect was emotionally abusing the American people and, in particular, the press.
“To gas light is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity, and that’s precisely what Trump is doing to this country,” Duca wrote.
“He lied to us over and over again, then took all accusations of his falsehoods and spun them into evidence of bias,” she went on, as if Trump was the first politician to ever tell a lie or spin stories for his personal gain.
(More recently, Duca compared Sean Hannity’s promotion of a conspiracy theory claiming that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered by Hillary Clinton to sexual assault. “Roger Ailes sexually assaulted women, Sean Hannity is sexually assaulting the truth,” Duca said in a since-deleted tweet.)
While these lazy comparisons go viral, the Trump administration wages war on women. The proposed American Health Care Act would completely defund Planned Parenthood, which provides necessary reproductive services for millions of people, including rape survivors and low-income women. In January, Trump issued an executive order banning foreign aid to international organizations that give abortion counseling to women in low-income countries. Under this so-called global gag rule, the United Nations Population Fund and other organizations that provide birth control and other reproductive services to women in developing countries have to go without necessary aid.
After an undocumented domestic violence survivor was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while seeking a protective order against an abusive boyfriend, advocates warned of a “chilling effect” on reports of violence from undocumented women. The LAPD recently claimed that officers are receiving fewer reports of domestic violence and sexual assault from Latino neighborhoods, likely caused by fears of deportation.
“Imagine a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother… not reporting a sexual assault because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart,” LAPD chief Charlie Beck told the LA Times.
Survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence face significant barriers when they try to report their abuse, and the Trump administration is making it harder for victims to seek justice. Given this, there’s something inherently icky about people comparing political situations to sexual assault. It’s a metaphor that serves no one.