On Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) took to Instagram Live, as she frequently does to address her followers directly, to speak publicly in detail for the first time about her experience being barricaded in her office during the January 6th Capitol insurrection. On her Live, she recounted in terrifying detail how rioters were stalking the halls looking for her while she hid in the bathroom of Rep. Katie Porter’s office.
“The reason I’m getting emotional in this moment is because these folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize. These are the same tactics of abusers,” she said during the Live, referring to colleagues like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) making comments downplaying the violent insurrection after stoking the election fraud claims that incited it. “And I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”
To the three million viewers on the live stream, it was a stunning and viscerally candid moment. But to AOC’s detractors, it was nothing short of a savvy political ploy. “This is a masterclass in emotional manipulation — a genuine political/rhetorical skill. Gotta hand it to her,” wrote infamous Twitter contrarian Michael Tracey. Though he attempted to clarify that he was not referring to her admission that she was sexually assaulted, he later doubled down on his statement. “She invoked her alleged sexual assault in order to shame as abusive those who don’t uncritically affirm her histrionic account of what occurred at the Capitol. If you don’t see the manipulativeness inherent in that rhetorical tactic, you are delusional.” Tracy’s categorization of AOC’s account as “histrionic” is particularly telling, given the irrefutable evidence that she has faced threats to her life while in Congress: last month, in fact, one of the rioters was arrested following a tweet that simply said, “Assassinate AOC.” (Rep. Porter also supported AOC’s version of what happened on January 6th.)
While it was mostly men who assented with Tracy’s views in his replies, they weren’t the only ones publicly questioning the veracity of AOC’s experience, even accusing her of monetizing it. Fox’s Kim Klacik expressed skepticism of the congresswoman’s story, saying, “A lot of things she does is for attention, I wouldn’t be surprised if AOC makes money off her posts.”
To anyone who’s followed AOC’s career, none of this was particularly surprising. AOC has spent the majority of her political life coming under harsh scrutiny from (mostly male, mostly conservative) political commentators who are so enraged by her youth, her vigor, her eloquence, her social media fluency, and her preternatural political savvy that they’ve been forced to conclude that it’s all a load of bullshit. (The fact that a young woman of color has ascended to such heights in such a short period of time plays an unspoken yet obvious role in this criticism.) From her tearful encounter with children separated at the border from their parents to her taste in footwear, conservative pundits are constantly grasping at what they see as evidence that her Democratic Socialist leanings, her working-class background, and her political credentials are all a sham.
When applied to her account of her own sexual assault, however, those critiques take on added resonance, in that they echo the tactics that men frequently use to negate or downplay women’s experiences with sexual violence. When a sexual assault survivor comes forward, it is not uncommon for people (mostly, but not always, men) to refute the veracity of their account by in part blaming the victim for the attack.
To sexual assault deniers, a woman coming forward with her experience is not a byproduct of deeply held trauma, but a result of some innate personal failing, such as a deeply ingrained need for validation or attention. “For misogynists, it’s not just about disbelieving women who come forward about sexual assault – it’s about painting them as the real wrongdoers,” feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote in response to Tracey’s tweet. There’s a chilling sort of logic to this: if you refuse to concede the possibility that a woman is telling the truth about her assault — if you view it as part of an elaborately hewn narrative or extended ruse, though to what end is unclear — then you don’t have to acknowledge her humanity.
In this sense, Tracey’s response to AOC’s admission is a stand-in for misogynists’ response to women’s trauma across the board. This seems to apply doubly to a conservative lightning rod like Ocasio-Cortez, whose every act is ascribed a sinister ulterior motive by virtually every conservative. To these people, her entire existence is an elaborate performance — a characterization that they don’t seem to apply to other politicians, even though performing is quite literally part of the job description.
The allegation that AOC’S Instagram Live was part of some elaborate political calculus is highly cynical and paranoid at best, and stunningly callous at worst. Absent clear and compelling evidence, there is no reason to believe any woman is lying about experiencing something as tragically common — and as rarely subject to false reporting — as sexual assault. What is worth noting is why men like Tracey would feel so compelled to poke holes in AOC’s account of her own experience, as if they were the ultimate arbiters of some elusive ideal of truth and integrity. It’s almost as if, by refusing to concede the possibility that a woman had a terrifying, common experience, they don’t have to face the truth: that there are victims all around us, as well as perpetrators.