By 2013, 23-year-old singer-songwriter Taylor Swift had undoubtedly established herself as one of the most powerful women in her field, having freshly released her bestselling album Red October of that previous year. Tumblr was flooded with gifs of the fluttering purple folds of her dress from the “Begin Again” music video and 2013 marked a banner year for cat ear headbands.
Swift was a veritable industry powerhouse with an arsenal of resources at her hand, but that didn’t stop Denver radio host David Mueller from groping her during a preconcert photo session that June.
According to RAINN, every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. People say that sexual assault cases are a “he said, she said” kind of story.
They’re wrong. It is only ever a case of “they did or they didn’t.”
Following the meet-and-greet, Swift’s team alerted KYGO radio station about the situation, who fired Mueller two days after having conducted their own investigation. Swift wanted to keep this incident on the down-low.
However, in 2015 Mueller sued Swift for $3 million in damages (though his lawyer later compromised down to $250,000 in his closing statements), her mother, and promotions director Frank Bell, claiming that they made a false accusation to pressure KYGO into firing him.
It was only then that Swift filed a countersuit for assault and battery, requesting $1 in compensation. Most women who accuse a man of sexual assault, even if he is guilty, are scolded for having “ruined” a man’s life with a potentially false allegation.
Bill Cosby’s lawyer Brian McMonagle actually made his case by claiming the one thing worse than sexual assault is the false accusation of it. “It can destroy a man. It can destroy his life. It can destroy his future.”
Swift was asked how she felt about Melcher losing his job. She gave the only answer she could: “I’m not going to allow you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events in his life that are the product of his decisions—not mine.”
Swift provided evidence of the assault with a photo from the meet-and-greet.
Everything in Swift’s body language screams discomfort. Mueller leers as his hand, though not visible, is clearly positioned near her backside. She leans herself and her hips as far away from Mueller as possible, towards his girlfriend Shannon Melcher. She tries to be pleasant. She has a duty. If it’s just another fan photo, why does this seasoned pro look as though she’s seen the face of Medusa?
Mueller’s lawyer Gabe McFarland says she could have taken a break if she were so distressed. Swift replied, “And your client could have just taken a normal photo with me.”
Victims of sexual assault are always asked why they didn’t scream or fight or take immediate action, typically by those trying to undercut the validity of their violation. When the human body is threatened, there are really three responses it takes: fight, flight, or freeze. Freezing is a deer in headlights-type reaction to detecting danger, the brain’s response to inhibit all movement when a predator attacks.
Aside from Swift herself, her bodyguard Greg Dent had also witnessed the crime. He did not intervene immediately because he received no cue from Swift, who continued the meet-and-greet session. During Swift’s testimony, McFarland asked whether she was “critical” of her security guard for not having come to her aid.
She answered, “I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”
Throughout the trial, Swift thoroughly shut down every effort Mueller and his representation took to undermine her and her case. Swift stuck plainly with the story that yes, in fact, Mueller, yes, it was most assuredly Mueller and not Shannon Melcher, who groped her without consent.
“He did not touch my rib. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass.”
Mueller attempted to defend himself by alleging that Swift was “cold and standoffish.”
Swift coolly replied that she has “the uncanny ability to solicit all kinds of new criticism.”
They tried to garner some sort of emotional response from Swift, trying to scrape out any indication of a vindictive agenda, asking if she felt as though Mueller got what he deserved by losing his job. But Swift, an industry veteran, had clearly learned from the best. “I don’t feel anything about Mr. Mueller. I don’t know him.”
They scrutinized if Mueller had really grabbed her butt, why the lifted skirt was not visible in the photo. Swift’s answer? “Because my ass is in the back of my body.”
The judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit against Swift, ruling that Mueller did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that Swift sought to have him terminated from his job and ruin his reputation. The jury comprised of six women and two men voted that Mueller’s actions amounted to assault and battery of Swift.
The respectability politics of her experience cannot be ignored.
When Taylor Swift’s mother, Andrea Swift, gave her testimony, she revealed that after the photo was taken, her daughter said an “almost automatic ‘thank you’” to Mueller and Melcher and later “agonized over her own actions.”
Andrea Swift cried, stating that “as a parent, I questioned why I taught her to be so polite.”
In Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger, she posits that “most girls are taught” to “not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be…acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”
At the time of the incident, Swift took the actions that she believed were most proper, most discreet. She did not want to be subject to cruel memes or in the public eye for something other than her career. When she thanked her assaulter the way she’d always been taught by well-meaning parents, she acted out of instinct, likely from the same internalized socialization that compels women to shrink themselves for the sake of not burdening others. It’s the same kind of instinct that makes women say “sorry” when alerting a waiter about a deathly food allergy or apologizing after someone has hit them with their bike.
But when it came time to take a stand, she did not mince words.
She “felt a responsibility to make sure this did not happen to another young woman.” Even from her stance as a victim, she approached the issue with a confidence and assertive manner not typically expected from one victimized. That was intentional.
Baldridge said, “she’s trying to tell people out there that you can say no when someone puts their hand on you. Grabbing a woman’s rear end is an assault, and it’s always wrong. Any woman—rich, poor, famous or not—is entitled not to have that happen.”
She was awarded the symbolic $1, which Swift’s lawyer Douglas Baldridge said was “immeasurable to all women,” signifying that they could report an assault without fearing a lawsuit in response from the attacker. Swift will be donating to organizations dedicated to helping sexual assault victims defend themselves.
In a statement, Swift acknowledges “the privilege I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.”
Though Swift has been accused of cowardice and ignorance, of being “problematic,” when it comes to her views on feminism, race, and friendship among other issues, she has taken a clear, informed, and unambiguous stance on sexual assault and its associated stigma for victims. At least for today, Swift has won a victory for herself and in solidarity of all women who have survived sexual assault.