Believing—or Not—E. Jean Carroll’s Story: Why it Matters

E. Jean Carroll leaves Manhattan Federal Court on May 8, 2023, following her trial, in which attorneys for E. Jean Carroll and Donald Trump gave closing arguments in the battery and defamation trial against the former president. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

E. Jean Carroll sued Donald Trump in a civil lawsuit relating to an assault in a Bergdorf’s dressing room in the 1990s. There were no witnesses, no photos, no relevant DNA, no significant evidentiary record of any kind. It was her story versus his—and this jury, at least, sided with Carroll. But do most people really believe her? This case may be over, but the question matters for the future. A lot.

Reactions to the verdict are already following a pattern: Women were likely to say, “Absolutely, I believed her. That stuff happens. Especially in those days.” But for men—even open-minded ones—the Carroll story was just too damn unfamiliar.

Carroll said she fought Trump’s sexual advances, yet she didn’t notify the police. She says she habitually told people she was “fine, fantastic,” yet remained traumatized by the assault, and struggled to form romantic relationships as a result. She says she told a friend about the alleged attack shortly afterward, but then the two friends didn’t talk about it for a quarter century.

To put her claims in context: Between 1992 and 2000, barely a third of all rapes were reported to the police. Carroll’s failure to report her attack to the police is (unfortunately) firmly in the mainstream.

The long term psychological consequences of rape are also wellestablished; they can include fear, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction and social adjustment issues—so from a criminal and medical perspective, Carroll’s claims are completely routine.

But it was Carroll’s story that people listened to. They asked themselves, “Does that really make sense? Wouldn’t I have contacted the police if it had been me? Would I have felt traumatized by this one incident for the rest of my life?” And that story explains the difference in reactions between so many men and women.

Most men simply don’t get women’s stories. I’m not saying they don’t understand them, or even that they disagree with them. Men literally are not exposed to women’s stories: They exist by and large in a protective bubble of male narratives, and this has huge consequences.

  • Women will read books written by men, but men don’t read books by women: Men account for only 19 percent of the audience for the top 10 best-selling female authors (Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood among them).
  • Men don’t see women’s perspectives on screen: Last year, merely 11 percent of the 100 top-grossing films were directed by women.
  • In advertisements, men appear four times as often as women and have seven times as many speaking parts.
  • Men don’t see photos by women—over 80 percent of photojournalists are men.
  • Broadway plays? The percent of those written by women is perhaps 20 percent, in a good year.
  • Artworks in the permanent collections of nearly all major museums are overwhelmingly made by men, and that’s not just the collecting practices of the past: In 26 major museums over a recent 10-year period, just 11 percent of acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions were of female artists.

I could go on.

Men are used to having their views seen as mainstream and their experiences treated as default human experiences.If men don’t see, hear, read or listen to women’s stories, it is no surprise that they don’t understand women’s psyches or have insights into the reality of a female experience. And thus, notwithstanding the Carroll verdict, I cannot help but feel like women will be treading on thin ice in similar cases in the future, always wondering, “Do they get this? Do men understand and see our reality at all?”

So women? Keep telling your stories.

And men? How about letting those stories in? Watch women’s movies, read their books, see their artwork. You might just learn something about half the population.

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E. Scott Osborne is the president of Through Women’s Eyes, a gender equality organization based in Sarasota, Fla.