“The first time he called me a ‘f***ing b****’ was on our honeymoon. (I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.)”
So wrote Jennifer Willoughby months ago about her first husband, Rob Porter. While she did not use his name, she did use hers. The abuse was not a secret. But no one seemed to care. Rob Porter was on his way up.
This week’s exhibit 5,394 of the muting of women starts with Jennie and Rob’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, both survivors of his violence and both subjected to the silencing, or as author Dahlia Lithwick called it, the “disappearing.” Move along. These are not the abuse victims you are looking for.
What does it take to be heard, especially when the abuser is in a position of power?
We know it took an avalanche of voices for former gymnasts to be heard about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar. For years, those young gymnasts were silenced. Hundreds of them. If they spoke up at all, they were called liars or told it didn’t happen or both.
Colbie and Jennie have been speaking out about their abuse for years. No one listened. In fact, as is often the case with other women who have come forward with stories of abuse, they were told to “consider his career.” Many victims of abuse are also threatened with “consequences” if they tell, including their own careers and even their very lives.
In the case of Colbie and Jennie, people like Sen. Orrin Hatch and Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, dismissed domestic violence because Rob is one of their boys and “good at his job.” Hatch might not have known about Rob’s predilection for abusing women, but it is shameful that his first response was to immediately call the women liars and claim the story was politically motivated.
And John Kelly? He has apparently known for months why Porter’s security clearance had “hit a snag.” They both owe Colbie and Jennie a gigantic apology.
One of the “complaints” about the #MeToo movement is that survivors didn’t speak up sooner.
“You should have said something,” victims are told. “Why didn’t you do something,” they are asked.
Let’s be clear. Colbie and Jennie did speak up. Jennie filed for a restraining order in 2010, Colbie made Rob take pictures of the black eye he gave her, Jennie started blogging and they both told family and friends.
It didn’t stop there. They also told the police and they told the FBI, who told Kelly. People in the White House knew why Rob couldn’t get his top-level security clearance to go through. They just chose to ignore it.
So how did Colbie and Jennie finally get people to hear them?? A British tabloid took their story and ran with it, including photographic evidence of physical abuse, forcing people to finally — finally — pay attention. Abuse shouldn’t have to rise to that level to be believed. Meanwhile, Porter calls it a “coordinated smear campaign” of false allegations.
The muting of women must stop — and there are glimmers of hope that is happening. In a powerful article titled “MeToo Has Done What The Law Could Not,” author Gabriella Demczuk writes that the #MeToo movement is eroding the two biggest barriers to ending sexual harassment: “the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.”
“It typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person,” Demczuk writes.
She continues: “Even when she was believed, nothing he did to her mattered as much as what would be done to him if his actions against her were taken seriously. His value outweighed her sexualized worthlessness. His career, reputation, mental and emotional serenity and assets counted. Hers didn’t. In some ways, it was even worse to be believed and not have what he did matter. It meant she didn’t matter.”
Back in December, when Roy Moore and his multiple victims were in the news, Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell said simply “I believe the women.” Let’s start there.
Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, is grateful for people willing to speak up and for those willing to listen and believe.