Stormy Daniels has done what the press and political brass of both the Republican and Democratic parties have been unable to do: hold Donald Trump accountable for his lies. Through her steadfast insistence on knowing what she knows, Daniels has offered us an opportunity to see clearly through the pretense of patriarchal power. In so doing she has joined a proud legacy of high-profile, financially independent and socially shocking women who insisted on speaking unabashedly about the things powerful men would rather them not say.
The facts of the case are that on Oct. 28, 2016, days before the presidential election, Daniels signed a non-disclosure agreement in which she pledged to not publicly discuss her relationship with Donald Trump in exchange for payment. Trump denies the affair but has since admitted he reimbursed his then-attorney for the hush money payments. This payout scheme has resulted in 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.
I take Daniels at her word when she told the press, “My goal is the same as it has always been—to stand up for myself and take back my voice after being bullied and intimidated by President Trump and his minions.”
It is not an accident of history that the first case Trump was indicted for started with his efforts to silence Daniels. And it is because of her status as an already maligned woman that she has been able to withstand, and seems determined to see through, the consequences of her story. She said recently in a 90-minute interview with Piers Morgan, “You can’t really shame somebody who’s been seen naked everywhere. Like, what are you going to do, release nudes of me?” It is this attitude that has allowed her, and many women like her, to tell the truth and shame the devil.
In 1872, then presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull held Henry Ward Beecher to account for his hypocrisy by infamously publishing the details of his extramarital affairs in her newspaper. For this she was prosecuted, by Anthony Comstock, for obscenity. Similarly to Daniels, Woodhull made no accusation of violence or coercion, she simply exercised her freedom to print what so many already knew. Comstock would go on to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material through the mail.
Considering information about contraception obscene, this law prevented the widespread distribution of birth control in the U.S. for generations, and was recently cited by a federal judge in Texas in his decision to invalidate the FDA’s approval of an abortion pill, mifepristone.
Woodhull grew up poor in a small town in rural Ohio. The eldest daughter of a snake oil salesman she started her speaking career as a child preacher and went on to become a well-known medium, assumed sex worker, and spiritual and financial adviser to Cornelius Vanderbilt. She went on to become the first female broker on Wall Street, the first woman to address Congress on the issue of suffrage, and the first woman to run for president.
Days before her arrest Victoria Woodhull said, “Until women come to hold men to equal account as they do the women with whom they consort; or until they regard these women as just as respectable as the men who support them, society will remain in its present scale of moral excellence.” She added, “Denounce me for advocating freedom if you can, and I will bear your curse with a better resignation.”
Like Woodhull, Daniels grew up poor on the outskirts of New Orleans and she had already accomplished a lot by the age of 26, when she met Donald Trump. She was a well-known, and well-paid, adult film actress, writer, director, and had recently enjoyed a cameo appearance in Judd Apatow’s 2005 film The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
In 2010 she mounted a senatorial campaign in her home state of Louisiana. Both women have been mocked and dismissed by their contemporaries both for their brazen sexuality and their interest in the occult. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Daniels consulted an oracle deck reading from some text accompanying the cards, “By clinging to old habits or things that were once true, something difficult is about to be forced upon us. We must release these outgrown or outworn ways of thinking to move forward to the next stage.”
“Whore” is an early word, and it comes from words that mean “woman who knows.” Knowledge, especially sexual knowledge, as a corrupting influence on women is a trope as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Women who know too much, and who choose to say what they know, have been violently punished and socially ostracized for as long as recorded history.
But sex workers in general, and Stormy Daniels in particular, have freed themselves from the limitations of respectability and social or sexual compliance. Instead she became a self-made success in a deeply stigmatized industry: porn. Because Daniels is not governed by the same polite niceties that define the tools of the political class, she was able to reflect back to all of us what Trump really is, and what he has always been—a clown of white supremacist chauvinism.
Stormy Daniels had sex with Donald Trump in 2005 at a golf course. She has never insinuated that the affair was violent or coercive, but it did happen. When Trump became the Republican nominee leading up to the 2016 election, questions about his personal character and private sexual choices became relevant in an unprecedented way. Rather than own his choices, Trump’s efforts to memory-hole this affair reflect a repeated pattern of denying reality and avoiding accountability. This pattern is illustrative of Trump’s core belief that his version of a story is more important than reality—a demonstrably dangerous quality in a leader, especially the President of the United States.
Trump has a well-documented and decades-long habit of debasing the people he associates with by insisting that they deny their own reality. Powerful, well-resourced, intelligent people have all degraded their own characters by refusing to accept what they know to be true. But Stormy Daniels, and many misbehaved women before her, insisted upon doing just that, and in so doing she has demonstrated a kind of moral courage that has always represented an existential threat to powerful men behaving badly. Women who know, and who say what they know—many men call those women whores, but I think it’s high time we recognize them as heroes.
Kaytlin Bailey is the Founder & Executive Director of Old Pros, host of The Oldest Profession Podcast, and the writer/performer of the one woman show Whore’s Eye View.