'Rape Myths' Front and Center in Trump-E. Jean Carroll Case

Donald Trump's defense is evoking a number of myths about sexual assault victims, experts say.
Author E. Jean Carroll arrives to federal court in New York, US, on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. The trial of a civil suit by Carroll, who claims Donald Trump raped her in the 1990s, is set to start today

Before the start of her trial, sexual assault survivors and advocates believed that E. Jean Carroll’s civil tried against former President Donald Trump would prove to be a watershed moment in history: Can a former advice columnist successfully sue a powerful, famous man for rape?

Now, with cross-examination of Carroll over and witness testimony underway, the trial is also raising another question: Do people still believe rape myths?


Over the last few days, the questioning by Trump’s legal team has evoked what experts often call “rape myths”—that is, false ideas about sexual assault, how it works, and how it impacts people. These myths may not only discredit sexual assault survivors, but they can also shift the blame onto a victim rather than a perpetrator.

“The cross-examination was designed in such a way that we would expect the jury to need to draw on these rape myths and stock misunderstandings about how rape victims behave in order to find it effective,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor and author of Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers. “I’m very interested to see whether, in this case, the jury is able to cut through all of that and judge her story on its face.”

During cross-examination, Carroll and one of Trump’s lawyers, Joe Tacopina, repeatedly circled the issue of why Carroll, who has said she was raped by Trump in a Manhattan department store dressing room in the mid-1990s, didn’t come forward sooner. Carroll first accused Trump of rape in 2019, when she published a story about the alleged encounter in New York Magazine. (Trump has denied the accusations, as he has done for the two-dozen-plus women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct.) 


“I am a member of the Silent Generation,” Carroll, 79, told the courtroom, according to the Washington Post. “Women like me were taught and trained to keep our chins up and to not complain.”

“I was sick of staying silent. It was just time,” she added.

Regardless of an accuser’s age, sexual assault remains one of the most infamously underreported crimes in the country. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 310 are reported to police—and just 28 result in a felony conviction, according to statistics from RAINN, one of the top anti-sexual assault organizations in the United States.

The reality that sexual assault survivors often take so long to come forward, if they ever do, is in fact one of the reasons why Carroll is able to sue Trump at all. New York state recently passed a law, the Adult Survivors Act, that temporarily allows people to sue one another for sexual assault even if the statute of limitations has lapsed—which Carroll then used to sue Trump for battery. (She is also suing him for defamation.)

“It was a barrier to justice for too long,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters when she signed the act into law. “There’s so many reasons why it could take someone years, literally decades, to come forward with the truth about what happened then. And all of those reasons are legitimate, and none of them are an invalidation of their experience, their trauma, and what really occurred.”


Tacopina also sought to undermine Carroll’s claims that she was traumatized by the alleged assault, mirroring Trump’s public insinuations that Carroll made her allegation to gin up publicity for herself. He brought up a 2012 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which involved a character fantasizing about rape role-play in the same department store where Carroll said Trump raped her. He also suggested that she made the allegation to sell a recent book.

Carroll has said that the book did not sell. On the witness stand Wednesday, a friend of Carroll’s—who said that Carroll told her about the alleged assault decades ago—said that Carroll could not tour the book due to security concerns. “The concern was for her safety because followers of Mr. Trump were threatening her,” the friend testified.


Carroll also insisted that, while she may seem positive in public, that is a constructed personality buoyed by her years working as an advice columnist at Elle magazine. “I don’t want anybody to know that I suffer,” she said, according to Politico. “Up until now, I would be ashamed to let people know what is actually going on.”

“Catch-22 for the rape accuser, both in cross examinations and elsewhere: if you seem happy and well adjusted, then no harm happened to you,” tweeted writer Moira Donegan, who famously published the Shitty Men in Media list, which amassed allegations of sexual misconduct by men working in media. “If you seem distraught and moved by the experience, then you’re crazy and unreliable.”

For Tuerkheimer, rape myths—and much of what was suggested during questioning of Carroll—all circle back to a fundamental, incorrect belief: People lie about being sexually assaulted. In fact, false accusations of rape are very rare. Studies have found that false reports make up somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of reports, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Now, the question is how the nine-person jury will react to the Trump legal team’s tactics, Tuerkheimer said.

“I think that the #MeToo movement has generated some greater awareness of how victims behave but this is a measure of that evolution,” she said. “It’s imperfect, because it’s nine people—that’s not everyone—but it’s nine people who are representing the community in this case. And it will be very interesting to see how they respond.”