A year ago this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a story detailing how, just before the 2016 election, Donald Trump fixer Michael Cohen paid porn star and entrepreneur Stormy Daniels $130,000 so she’d keep quiet about an alleged affair she’d had with Trump starting in 2006, months after the birth of his youngest son, Barron.
Coverage of the tawdry scandal turned up several odd nuggets, like Trump’s apparent fear of sharks, but it didn’t seem that significant in the grand scheme of things at the time. Political sex scandals are a dime a dozen, argues scandal scholar Brandon Rottinghaus, and their details fail to faze most Americans—especially when the president involved is an established womanizer and the sex involved was consensual. Yet a year later, the Daniels scandal is still in the headlines, in no small part thanks to Daniels herself, who has bucked the template for women in her position. The lasting legacy of the Daniels affair might not be its direct political effect on Trump, but its effect on the way we talk about sex scandals and the women who are caught up in them.
Politicians have been grappling with sex scandals since the birth of the nation. By now, a general playbook has emerged for leaders caught having affairs, or engaging in serious sexual misconduct: They ignore or deny the story. If that isn’t viable, they release carefully worded apologies and do what they can to demonstrate, via photo ops and other performances, their contrition in public.
All too often, this image management combines with culturally entrenched misogyny to result in the systematic denigration of the women with whom the politician was involved. Presidential allies often start by calling the women involved fame-hungry or politically motivated liars. Then commentators move to shifting blame for the affair entirely onto the woman—witness Monica Lewinsky being called “sex-crazed” and a “temptress.”
In the face of this, most women have shied away from publicity, says Robert Watson, a presidential sex scandal historian, “and understandably so.” The deluge of slut-shaming character assassination that takes over the narrative of their lives “is a shocking thing that I don’t think anybody could be prepared for.”
Trump and elements of the media predictably launched a barrage of initial denials and slanders against Daniels, especially for her career in sex work. In June, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on national television that he didn’t respect Daniels and that "someone who sells his or her body for money has no good name." Trump seemed set to capitalize on the media’s longstanding reticence to cover stories that seem too tawdry or, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza put it last January, “icky” as well. And the president could rely on a host of other pressing stories in the headlines around the same time the Journal article came out to distract the public, from a looming government shutdown to the Mueller investigation to the false missile alert in Hawaii.
Volleys of downward punches, denials, and distractions had helped Trump quash scandals in the past, including a similar adult model payoff reported in the Journal just before the 2016 election and about two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct, often at the expense of the reputations of the women involved. (An accuser named Summer Zervos sued him for defamation after he called her a liar.)
Daniels, as she explained in her infamous March 2018 60 Minutes interview, was hesitant to speak publicly at first because she was worried about the torrent of backlash that would come her way as “the woman” at the center of a presidential sex scandal—and the deleterious effects it could have on her family and career.
But Daniels didn’t hide, as many women in similar positions (reasonably) have. Instead, she came out swinging against the president’s attempts to denigrate her and control the story. She pushed her own narrative with eloquence, wit, and force, all while, as pop culture scholar Ann C. Hall puts it, “successfully avoiding being silenced by the Trump weaponry: lawyers, legal motions, payoffs, Tweets, and intimidation.” Cultural critics obsessed for the better part of a year about how she and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, have developed a brand and media narrative, in many ways by leveraging Trump’s own reality TV-as-politics tactics against him. (Daniels’s partnership with Avenatti frayed after a judge tossed out a defamation lawsuit the duo had filed against Trump, holding Daniels accountable for the president’s nearly $300,000 in attorney fees and sanctions. Daniels then claimed that Avenatti filed the suit against her wishes, though the two have apparently made up.)
But it’s Daniels’s own persistence and skills that helped her stay in the spotlight longer than most sex scandal subjects and earned her in-depth profiles in the press that treated her as a complex and credible human.
“She’s not only punched back,” says Watson, “she has also found a way, ironically like Trump, to monetize” her notoriety. She hasn’t just attracted more people to her stripping gigs or grabbed more viewers for her porn content. Within days of the initial story, she launched a Trump-themed stripping tour, and in the following months she scored new porn-world deals and released a successful memoir.
Thanks to her refusal to be cowed, apologize for her role in the affair or her chosen career, or to be defined by a single event in her life, Daniels has turned into something of an anti-Trump feminist folk hero for some.
Granted, Daniels’s media savvy isn’t the only think that’s kept her sex scandal in the news. As media scholar Joseph Slade points out, much of the story’s longevity stems from the fact that Cohen’s payment to her was a campaign finance violation, and catching him out on that has flipped him into an informant in Robert Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian state. The MeToo movement, says Watson, has opened more space for someone like Daniels to tell her side of a story and have it respected and reported out. Changing social attitudes about sex and sex work, adds Slade, make it harder to defame and dismiss Daniels than it would have been in years past. And as many cultural critics have noted, ratings-hungry media outlets have grown so addicted to scandalous tidbits and gossip that they were ready to eat up a story like this, which is both genuinely newsworthy and filled with juicy details.
Daniels’s time as a national media figure has been complicated for her. She has publicly lamented the effect it has had on two other strippers arrested with her in what many saw as a politically motivated sting at a strip club in July, acknowledged the toll it has taken on her marriage, and wondered if she has consigned herself to live forever in Trump’s shadow. She has also been candid in interviews about the stress caused by the scandal, and her frustrations with press coverage of her.
Ela Darling, an adult performer and entrepreneur, says that she and others have worried “for [Stormy’s] safety, because stepping into the spotlight and opposing the most powerful man in the country put a target on her back. Because of the stigma around sex and sex work, I worried that threats or acts of harm against her would be dismissed or overlooked.”
Still, it is impossible to deny Daniels’s talents in navigating the political and cultural moment she found herself and her affair within. Her affair with Trump will serve as a reference point for all future American political sex scandals, argues Watson, not just as a metric for how shocking, explicit, or out of the norm something has to be to warrant popular attention, but because of her successful spin efforts. She has set a precedent for women in the future—to punch back, and even profit from their situation, rather than let someone else control the story.
Not everyone caught up in a sex scandal in the future may want to follow that template. Few people have Daniels’s brashness or skill set; many would rather be forgotten than become a president’s celebrity opponent. But the mere existence of the option, and the historical-cultural reference point that Daniels embodies, will likely be a game changer for the way Americans think and talk about political sex scandals from now on.
“Yeah,” Watson says, “Stormy’s changing everything. It’s interesting to watch, isn’t it?”
Correction: This article originally stated that the relationship between Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti had "collapsed" when in fact Daniels tweeted that the two had "sorted shit out" after she accused the attorney of filing a lawsuit without notifying her. We regret the error.
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