Content warning: sexual abuse.
In the early 2000s, People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff was assigned to cover all things Donald Trump.
It was the height of Trump’s “Apprentice” popularity, and Stoynoff was along for the ride. She conducted multiple interviews with Trump, attended his wedding to Melania Knauss, and tracked the success of the show.
On Oct. 12, 2016, Stoynoff published a story in which she stated that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her during an interview in 2005.
It was the same year as the now-infamous hot mic recorded conversation between Trump and Billy Bush. Stoynoff writes that Trump led her to a room alone, where he suddenly pinned her to a wall and kissed her.
“We’re going to have an affair, I’m telling you,” she says Trump told her.
The story is one of many allegations recently made against the Republican presidential nominee. Each story that comes out — and there will probably be more as the election gets closer — is deeply troubling on its own, even more so when considered together.
But there’s one part of Stoynoff’s story that hasn’t gotten the same attention that her description of the physical assault has — and it points to a disturbing tactic often used by abusers.
It’s what she says Donald Trump did the next day:
“Earlier in my trip, I had tried to arrange a session at Mar-a-Lago’s spa for my chronic neck problem — the spa was part of a private resort separate from the Trump residence — but they were booked up. Trump had gotten wind of that before the interview and called himself, asking the top massage therapist if he would come in extra early to see me, as a favor to him.”
After arriving at the spa late, Stoynoff says, the massage therapist told her that Trump had shown up to her massage appointment and had waited for her for 15 minutes before he had to leave to attend a meeting.
Stoynoff writes of her reeling thoughts:
“I lay on the massage table, but my eyes were on the doorknob the entire time. He’s going to show up and [the massage therapist is] going to let him in with me half-naked on a table. I cut the session short, got dressed and left for the airport.”
What’s so deeply unsettling about this part of Stoynoff’s story is that reflects how abusers exercise power over others without even being in the same room as them.
Most of the conversation around Trump’s treatment of women in the wake of the leaked hot mic moment has been about the physical allegations against the candidate, especially as more women come forward (Stoynoff included) with stories demonstrating the behavior he describes on the tape.
What’s less talked about is the insidious way in which abusers actually plan their attacks, unprovoked though they may seem at the time, and use their status to create a sense of utter helplessness in those they subjugate.
“In order to assault someone … they must be manipulated in some way, and that manipulation implies the use of power,” William Flack Jr., associate professor at Bucknell University’s Department of Psychology, wrote in an email, explaining how perpetrators of sexual assault use power and manipulation to their advantage.
Stoynoff was just a reporter trying to do her job when Donald Trump — a man who wields a lot of social power and influence — allegedly assaulted her. The next day, all she wanted was a massage for her aching neck and to go home quietly.
For Trump to find out that Stoynoff hadn’t been able to set up a massage appointment and then set it for her despite the spa being booked wasn’t necessarily a kind gesture on his part — it was also likely a display of power. Trump was letting her know that he called the shots, that he knew where she would be, and that as long as she was on his property, she had no expectation of privacy.
The power that abusers use is not always physical.
In the case of Stoynoff’s experience, Trump used his power to remain at the forefront of her thoughts and fears. Instead of having a private moment to herself to enjoy her massage, she remained fearful of what might come through that door.
“Someone who has been assaulted can certainly fear their perpetrator, and act on that fear, regardless of the perpetrator’s location,” explained Flack.
Showing up at Stoynoff’s massage appointment without warning is an eerie parallel to the story Trump told Howard Stern in 2005 about walking through the dressing rooms at his pageants while the contestants were changing. “I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump said.
Replace “pageant” with “Mar-a-Lago” and you can see why Stoynoff knew she couldn’t rely on the massage therapist to keep Trump out if he showed up and demanded to be let in — even if she said she didn’t want him there.
Upon returning home, Stoynoff filed her story about his marriage and immediately left the Trump beat behind.
As for why Stoynoff didn’t come forward with her story earlier?
Just look at how Donald Trump reacted to it, even with the hot mic tape leaked and at least half a dozen other women accusing him of the same behavior:
Why didn’t the writer of the twelve year old article in People Magazine mention the “incident” in her story. Because it did not happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2016
At a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Oct. 13, Donald Trump denied the allegations against him and slammed the various news sources reporting them. There was even a victim-blaming hashtag to go along with the whole thing.
If Stoynoff had come forward in 2005, with none of the present evidence, none of the other survivors sharing their stories, and at the height of Trump’s “Apprentice” power and influence, she likely would have faced even more denial and victim-blaming than she is now. You probably never would have heard her name — or her story — again.
It is incredibly brave of Stoynoff and all these other women to come forward now, with the election just a few weeks away.
Sexual assault and rape are not about sex. They’re about about power. When your first instinct is to cast doubt on the accusers and side with the accused — without question — that gives the perpetrator more of an excuse to abuse that power to keep their victim from speaking out against them.
When Trump says Stoynoff and the other women accusing him of assault should have come forward years ago with their claims — and that they didn’t is a sign that they’re lying — he is exerting his power and status as a presidential candidate, a wealthy businessman, and a celebrity to try to keep them quiet and keep his supporters doubting them.
As more women come forward with stories alleging Donald Trump assaulted them or demeaned them, remember that these women have nothing to gain by making these accusations.
Remember that these women are being viciously attacked and blamed for sharing parts of their lives about which they have likely felt deeply ashamed. And remember to err on the side of trusting them. To do otherwise is to trust a man who has bragged about this behavior on tape and give him a shield behind which he could continue to abuse and assault even more women in the future.
Standing with Trump’s accusers means you have seen an injustice and want to fight it — with your belief, your words of support, and your vote.