The Taylor Swift groping trial shows how we think about who’s entitled to women’s bodies

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Here’s everything you need to know, including the context for Swift’s endlessly quotable testimony.

This week saw the beginning of what the internet has mostly referred to as simply “the Taylor Swift groping trial.” The pop megastar is facing off in court against former radio DJ David Mueller in a trial that’s generated feverish press coverage — especially after Swift’s firm, uncompromising, and extremely quotable testimony on Thursday.

And throughout, the trial has become a telling illustration of how we think about women’s bodies and who is entitled to them.

Here’s everything you need to know about the trial.

What is this trial about?

Essentially, Swift says that Mueller groped her ass, and he says he didn’t.

In 2013, the then-23-year-old Taylor Swift was in the midst of her Red Tour. Before a concert in Denver on June 2 of that year, she hosted a meet-and-greet for fans. Mueller, then a DJ for the radio station KYGO, attended as well, and posed for a picture with Swift and his girlfriend, Shannon Melcher. According to Swift, while they were taking the picture, Mueller reached under her skirt and grabbed her rear.

Swift had her security team eject Mueller from the venue and issue him a lifetime ban against ever attending another one of her shows. She also notified Mueller’s employer, KYGO, and two days later they fired him, citing the morality clause in his contract.

Who’s suing whom here?

Mueller filed a defamation suit against Swift in 2015, alleging that he never touched her rear and that because of her false accusation, he lost his job and his reputation was ruined. (Taylor Swift’s mother, Andrea Swift, and KYGO promotions director Frank Bell are also named in the suit.)

In response, Swift filed a countersuit a month later, claiming assault.

Mueller is asking for up to $3 million in damages from Swift. Swift is asking for only $1. Her lawyer says she’s asking for that amount because she’s in court on principle: All she wants is to demonstrate that what Mueller did to her was assault, and to “serve as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts."

Can I see the picture where the groping allegedly happened?

Sure. Swift wanted to keep the picture out of the press to avoid prejudicing the jury, but TMZ published it anyway last year.

In the photo, Mueller’s hand appears to be hovering around Swift’s rear. (Mueller claims that he’s actually touching her ribs.)

You may wonder, as Mueller’s lawyer did, why Swift’s skirt looks undisturbed in the photo if Mueller has his hand under it. Swift has an answer for you: "Because my ass is located in the back of my body," she said in court on Thursday.

What is Mueller’s argument?

Basically, Mueller’s suit argues that no one would be dumb enough try to grope a major pop star in front of all those people, and also someone else did it, not him.

"The contention that Mr. Mueller lifted up Ms. Swift's skirt and grabbed her bottom, while standing with his girlfriend, in front of Ms. Swift's photographer and Ms. Swift's highly trained security personnel, during a company sponsored, VIP, backstage meet-and-greet, is nonsense," the lawsuit states.

Apparently less burdened with a sense of self-preservation is a man that Mueller’s suit refers to only as “Craig.” Craig was a co-worker of Mueller’s, and according to Mueller, at Swift’s meet-and-greet Craig “excitedly” told Mueller about taking a picture with Swift and “described and demonstrated how he had put his arms around her, hands on her bottom.” (According to Swift’s team, Mueller later identified “Craig” as his boss, Eddie Haskell, a claim Mueller denied in court.)

In testimony on Tuesday, Mueller added that he jumped into the picture at the last second and may have accidentally “jostled” Swift’s rib cage.

For her part, Swift testified that she is certain that Mueller is the person who grabbed her and equally certain that he didn’t grab her ribs. “This is what happened, it happened to me, I know it was him," she said, adding, “He did not touch my rib, he did not touch my hand, he grabbed my bare ass."

She was also firm in her testimony that what happened was deliberate, and that Mueller didn’t accidentally jostle her. “I want to be very clear — there’s been a lot of talk about diving and jostling and sliding into the frame,” she said. “I have experienced every degree of an awkward first encounter … you think it’s a high-five and they think it’s a handshake, and they say, ‘Oh, sorry’ and you say, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’”

“We were in position to take a photo,” she continued. “It’s very simple: You just stand there, and you take a photo. This wasn’t an action shot.”

Is there any evidence besides the photo and the he said/she said stuff?

Mueller claims that he recorded a two-hour phone call with KYGO the day after he was informed about Swift’s allegations. He says had a copy of the audio file on his laptop and on an external hard drive, and possibly his cell phone as well — but he spilled coffee on and then lost the laptop, the external hard drive just stopped working, and he threw out the cell phone.

Why are people making jokes about Taylor Swift’s courtroom sketches?

Because Taylor Swift is a famously pretty person, and the sketches are not very flattering.

Why does anyone care about this whole thing?

Celebrity trials are always a gossip fest, but this one is an especially big deal. That’s because of what it says about women’s bodies, and who gets to control them.

America has long had an unspoken understanding that famous women have no real right to bodily autonomy. Women in general aren’t understood to have much right to bodily autonomy in America: hence rape culture, hence comments about rape like, “if a man walked around with a suit made of $100 bills, he’d expect to be robbed, wouldn’t he?” that make women’s bodies analogous to money. But because fame already comes with diminished expectations of privacy, celebrity women are considered to be especially fair game.

Not all that long ago, if nude pictures of a famous woman leaked onto the internet, she was supposed to apologize to the world, not the other way around. The understanding was that the issue wasn’t the violation of the woman’s privacy, but the fact that she had a body that was sometimes naked, and this was scandalous.

“I want to apologize to my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me,” said 18-year-old Vanessa Hudgens in 2007, after someone posted nude pictures of her on the internet without her permission.

“Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment,” a Disney Channel spokesperson added. (This was the High School Musical era.) “We hope she’s learned a valuable lesson.”

It wasn’t until 2014, when the nude photos of dozens of celebrity women were leaked to the internet in what was dubbed “the Fappening,” that the narrative began to swing in the opposite direction. Now, more people seem to recognize that the problem is not that women have bodies — it’s that other people feel entitled to those bodies when they aren’t.

But the people who feel entitled to women’s bodies still exist. “You deserved this because a girl like you would never date me in real life, no matter how nice and courteous I was,” said one of those people to Mary Elizabeth Winstead after her nudes leaked. “Karma!”

This whole belief system — the idea that women’s bodies are property and that women don’t own them — is what would allow a grown man to feel comfortable groping a young woman while at a work event and standing next to his girlfriend.

Swift’s argument is that by countersuing Mueller, she’s making it easier for other, less powerful women to punish the men who think they have a right to their bodies: Testifying about a sexual assault in court can be traumatic, but Swift’s suit argues that her example will help other women come forward. Swift doesn’t always walk the walk when she plays the feminist card, but this is an issue she’s consistently firm on: Last year, she donated $250,000 to Kesha’s legal fight against Dr. Luke.

How did Taylor Swift do on the stand?

Swift’s testimony on Thursday was, in BuzzFeed’s words “badass and amazing,” and in CNN’s words “firm, even snarky.” Or as GQ writer Caity Weaver put it, “SHE DROPPED THE MIC SO HARD IT FELL THROUGH THE FUCKIN FLOOR. ONLY QUESTION IS ‘WHERE CAN WE GET ANOTHER MIC, THIS ONE HAS BEEN ANNIHILATED.’”

Throughout her testimony, Swift insisted on placing all responsibility on the man who allegedly groped her, refusing to be redirected. Here are some quotes from the testimony in question.

  • When Mueller’s lawyer suggested that Swift should be critical of her bodyguard for failing to protect her from being groped: “I'm critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass."
  • When asked for her reaction on learning that Mueller was fired: "I'm not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault, because it isn't. … I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”
  • When Mueller’s lawyer suggested that if she was so traumatized by the incident, she could have ended the meet-and-greet: “And your client could have taken a normal photo with me."
  • Responding to Mueller’s description of her as “cold:” “Which is a new one for me, but I have an uncanny ability to elicit new criticism.”
  • And in conclusion: "Gabe [Mueller’s attorney], this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass. You can ask me a million questions — I'm never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different."
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