The Politics of Sexual Assault

The reaction to Donald Trump’s history of intimidating and assaulting women is a reflection on how far we have to go with acknowledging rape culture.


Presidential candidate Donald Trump has faced numerous sexual assault claims following the release of un-aired footage from 2005. (Photo: Yahoo)

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has faced numerous sexual assault claims following the release of un-aired footage from 2005. (Photo: Yahoo)

When the Access Hollywood recording was released, many men expressed feelings of shock. 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney tweeted: “Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” Other men said they had never heard such comments about women in the locker-rooms they used, referring to Trump’s immediate statement that his comments eleven years ago were simply an example of “locker-room banter”.

This reaction, whilst well-intentioned, does have the consequence of presenting Trump’s actions as unique in regards to sexual assault. In actuality the words and actions of Trump are more commonplace than some would like to admit. In the US, one in five women (and one in 16 men) are sexually assaulted while in college; in England and Wales it is estimated that 85,000 women are raped every year; in the US, 54 per cent of people have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment, with 79 per cent of that number being women.

Nor should Trump’s 2005 comments come as a surprise; notably in interviews with Howard Stern, Trump has previously said all manner of predatory and demeaning things about women, (for example, saying “deeply troubled women” are “always the best in bed”, when talking about then nineteen year old actress Lindsay Lohan). Many sources have also told of Trump’s bullying of Alicia Machado after she gained weight following her winning the title of Miss Universe, a competition Trump had recently acquired. Trump has also sent multiple tweets which demean women over the recent years, one of the most shocking (since-deleted) seems to blame women in the US military for their own assaults. As outright and vile as the content and language of the Access Hollywood tapes seem, they should not come as a shock. It should not surprise us that someone with a long history of belittling, intimidating, and insulting women would also talk in frank terms about violating them. And then, it should not astonish us that this language is, despite Trump’s claim that this was just talk and not a reflection of his actions, linked to cases of sexual assault. That talk of assaulting women would lead to a nonchalant attitude towards assaulting women is sequitur.

In a CNN interview, Trump’s wife Melania Trump told Anderson Cooper she felt the 2005 conversation was like one between “two teenage boys,” who “should behave better.”

Other Trump supporters have told journalists in the past couple of weeks that his prior comments about women reflect the way many men talk about women. Republican women have said that they do not feel Trump’s comments and even his actions are disqualifying owing to their familiarity with such behaviour. Only 13 per cent of Republican women believe that the latest controversy means Trump should drop out. This isn’t a total condemnation of those supporters for their justification; their logic is maybe purely a reflection of how women are told to treat assault as a normal part of life, to the point where it is even tolerable from a presidential candidate.

Michelle Obama, speaking at a Hillary Clinton rally in New Hampshire, summed it up when she said, “This was not just a ‘lewd conversation’. This wasn’t just locker-room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behaviour, and actually bragging about kissing and groping women.”

Trump supporters at a rally in Reno, Nevada. (Photo: Darron Birgenheier, Flickr).

Trump supporters at a rally in Reno, Nevada. (Photo: Darron Birgenheier, Flickr).

Considering sexual assault as just “boys being boys” isn’t rare, it’s a line of rhetoric we have seen a lot in relation to cases of young college boys arrested for assault and rape. For example, US college student Brock Turner’s rape conviction was lamented as an over-reaction to a hedonistic act of male youth that would ruin his swimming aspirations and bright career prospects – the same consideration was seemingly not shown to his victim’s future potentials. It is even stranger to see such an argument extended to a 70-year-old adult man.

Despite the establishment’s horror, the majority of Republicans voters seem willing to dismiss Trump’s purported crimes. In one poll 84 per cent say they still intend to vote for him. Perhaps this is something unique to Trump supporters – Rand Corp’s Presidential Election Panel Survey (PEPS), revealed that primary voters who strongly agreed that “women who complain about harassment often cause more problems than they solve” were 30 percentage points more likely to support Trump than Republicans who strongly disagreed with that statement. But to say “All Republican voters have a terrible disregard for women” is perhaps too simplistic, after all as mentioned earlier, a lot of women vote Republican. The normality of sexual assault stretches over party lines – that’s of course not to say that it doesn’t manifest in worse forms in certain areas – but the conversation Trump has inspired should be a cause for reflection amongst people of all political alignments.

One of the most striking moments in Michelle Obama’s speech about Trump’s behaviour was when she spoke of feeling the scandal “so personally.” She said, “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It’s frightening.”

It’s important that Trump is held to account for his vile actions and comments, but this needs to be done with the acknowledgment that Trump is not an anomaly. It helps no one to pretend that Trump is somehow unique in the language he has been recorded using to talk to and about women. One of the most effective moments for Hillary Clinton in the third debate was when she said of Trump, “He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.”

That a man can be recorded and verifiably reported as committing and discussing sexual assault, as though women’s consent does not matter, multiple times over the course of many decades, and still be nominated as a presidential candidate is a reflection of our society. Both reactions of surprise and of nonchalance from voters to the 2005 Trump tapes reveal truths that are sadly indicative of a society that does not take sexual assault and harassment seriously.

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