Taylor Swift’s attorney drew a clear battle line in the Denver courtroom where a jury decided that former radio host David Mueller had groped the singer during a during a pre-concert meet-and-greet in 2013.
“It was an on-the-job workplace assault,” Doug Baldridge asserted, adding that Swift’s management team had reported it to Mueller’s radio station KYGO in order “to protect others”.
Swift, who was 23 at the time, claimed Mueller, then 51, reached under her skirt and groped her bottom. She did not report the incident to police but told her management team, who reported it to KYGO. When the station fired Mueller, he essentially sued Swift for ruining his career. She then counter-sued him for sexual assault and battery.
My life may be very different from that of the Grammy award-winning, ever-glamorous multimillionaire Swift, but being felt up at work is an unfortunate common ground. At one job, my female peers warned me that a colleague, an older man, could be “a little hands on”.
I thought nothing of it until my second week, when he summoned me to an office where I found myself being grilled about my work. He invited me to the pub for “office happy hour” and I arrived to find he hadn’t asked anyone else and it was just me and him.
At the time I didn’t say anything. I was afraid of losing the job, and the other women in the office seemed to regard him as harmless. But now I’m a little bit wiser I can see him for what he really was: a sleazebag who shamelessly took advantage of his young female colleagues.
During the course of this trial, every woman I’ve spoken to has recounted at least one experience of being sexually assaulted at work. A friend who works in the construction industry had her bottom slapped at the office coffee machine just last week. She didn’t report it because she’s one of only three women in the entire company and doesn’t want to cause a “fuss”. In fact, the only surprising thing about sexual assault in the workplace is how men appear to be genuinely shocked to learn the problem is so prevalent. A 2016 Cosmopolitan survey found that one in three women have been sexually harassed or assaulted at work, with 44% of them saying they had encountered unwanted touching and sexual advances.
One of the issues, of course, is that many women don’t report sexual assaults to HR or management because they don’t want to draw attention to what is often a shameful or humiliating experience. With men occupying the majority of senior management positions in the UK, women can also be anxious about how claims of sexual assault or harassment may be received, and the potential impact on their career. Even Swift, one of the most influential pop stars on the planet, didn’t report her assault to police because, as her mother Andrea testified, she “did not want every interview from now on to have to make her include what happened to her”.
On the stand, Swift spoke with clear conviction as she testified how Mueller had “latched onto” her “bare ass” during the meet-and-greet photo opportunity.
However, she became emotional as Mueller’s attorney repeatedly played the blame game, arguing that she would have contacted police if she believed she had been sexually assaulted, and that in the resulting photo of her and Mueller, “there’s nothing in Taylor Swift’s face to suggest anything is wrong”.
In fact, Swift was doing what most women do when they find themselves in an inappropriate situation with a member of the opposite sex at work. We remain professional, we compartmentalise it and, in some cases, we finish a meet-and-greet then go on to perform a sold-out concert with at least 15 costume changes to 18,000 adoring fans. To do anything less runs the risk of marking us out as weak or “too sensitive”, which can be kryptonite to any woman trying to establish or maintain a career.
Sexual assault in the workplace is often seen as a “women’s issue”, which gives men an excuse to not to pay attention to it or to take it seriously. And I don’t doubt my male colleague’s astonishment on discovering how many women he knows have had their bums touched without permission. But the best way to prevent sexual assaults from happening – in the workplace and elsewhere – is through intervention. This means both women and men should feel able to speak out without fear of blame or discrimination.