Trump’s election sent a message that America will tolerate a man who traffics not only in race-baiting and xenophobic rhetoric, but shamelessly and thoughtlessly trivializes sexual assault.
In an article attempting to explain the electoral victory of President-Elect Donald Trump, the Washington Post summarized a litany of ways that Trump upended expectations about what was possible for a man like him, including the notion that his boorish behavior, epitomized by his brazen statement that he could grope women without asking their permission and get away with it, would not be forgiven by the voters. Invoking the case of a woman who supported Trump, the Post wrote:
The day after The Washington Post revealed video showing Trump explaining to TV host Billy Bush how he would grab women by the crotch, a Trump supporter in Syracuse, N.Y., Shannon Barns, said that the video had only deepened her belief that he should be president. “This just put a human face on the guy for me,” she said. “I was worried that he was a billionaire and didn’t know about the lives of people like me. This showed me that he’s a man. You know in your heart every man talks like that.”
In other words, trivializing sexual assault humanized Trump for this woman, because, she claimed, every man talks like that.
He was not a fat cat billionaire so removed from the dinner table of average Americans that he could not appreciate that conversations at the dinner table can sometimes turn rancid. He was instead a living, breathing man of Main Street who deigns to sit in the locker room and talk like men do.
This is a surprising statement, not simply for the obvious reason that it serves to condone a lax attitude about sexual assault, and not simply because it comes from a woman. It is surprising because it reveals how deep-rooted certain beliefs remain about what it is to be a man and how a man is assumed to talk about women, and how these attitudes influenced perceptions of a celebrity candidate running for the highest office in the land.
First, let’s state the obvious. Trump’s remark was deplorable.
He is heard saying that his fame gives him a pass to ‘move’ on an attractive woman, to kiss her and grope her, without asking her consent, because to him, there is no need. ‘They let you do it’, he says, because women are supposedly overwhelmed and impressed by fame and fortune. The assumption is that a man adorned by the aura of success, money, fame, and power is an arresting allure that makes him irresistible. Thus, women allow him to ‘move’ on them because the patina of fame and glamour ‘validates’ his intrusion.
This is an assumption that is endemic to the culture of power, a culture of permissibility in which a man like Trump feels so entitled that a phrase like ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’ can be said with the blitheness of one who does not think he is doing anything wrong. It is just ‘locker-room talk’. It is just something he said in passing without thinking about it. It is something he said because it is funny and entertaining and appeals to the prurient tastes of men who may be watching the show and are not immune from feeling a pang of envy for a man whose fame and power give him the liberty to ‘move on’ a woman and kiss her without asking consent. It is something he said because that is simply how men talk about women.
Despite Trump’s pretensions that behavior like this is normal and harmless and prevalent, twelve women have come out and accused Trump of sexual assault. It is probably not a stretch to speculate that there are more women out there who have yet to come out. But it should also not come as a surprise that Trump has threatened to sue the women who have accused him of sexual assault. Trump is a billionaire with resources that go beyond dollars and cents. He knows other powerful people. He has the power of the pulpit. Millions support him. He is a vociferous braggart who has no shame in throwing accusations at people.
Now, he is the President of the United States.
How does something like this happen?
It happens because, among other things, millions of people have convinced themselves that trivializing sexual assault is an offense that does not disqualify a man from holding the highest office in a land where millions of other people are tirelessly working to transcend deep-rooted attitudes that underlie what academicians and others call ‘rape culture.’
What is rape culture? Does it refer to a post-apocalyptic society like in the movie Book of Eli in which evil men rape women at will? Does it refer to a war-torn society in which rape is used as psychological warfare? Does it refer to a pre-feminist Mad Men world where men grope or make lewd comments about women in public with no fear of repercussions or even a sense that there is something not right about it?
This is not my understanding of what is meant by rape culture in today’s world. We have, in fact, made some progress. It is, rather, subtler and more insidious. The Women’s Center at Marshall University defines rape culture as ‘an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.’ Examples of behavior that give rise to rape culture, according to the Center, are blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”); trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”); sexually explicit jokes; tolerance of sexual harassment; inflating false rape report statistics; publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history; gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television; defining ‘manhood’ as dominant and sexually aggressive; defining ‘womanhood’ as submissive and sexually passive; pressure on men to ‘score’; pressure on women to not appear ‘cold’; assuming only promiscuous women get raped; assuming that men don’t get raped or that only ‘weak’ men get raped; refusing to take rape accusations seriously; and teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape.
Proving the causal relationship between any one of these behaviors and an actual case of rape is probably elusive.
The point instead is that these kinds of actions collectively give rise to common attitudes about gender relations, and that these attitudes spawn an environment in which the likelihood of rape increases when women (or men) find themselves in sexual situations in which they are uncomfortable or unsafe. It is an environment in which assumptions about what is common behavior for men breed a sense of entitlement or bad judgment that leads to rape. It is a culture in which behavioral cues, doubts about what constitutes consent, peer pressure, alcohol abuse, and psychological manipulation can go violently awry and lead to rape. It is a culture in which a sequence of irresponsible decisions can lead young men like Owen Labrie to rape a girl as part of a campus ritual or like Brock Turner to rape a girl who is lying unconscious after a frat party.
This is a culture that is going nowhere fast when a Trump supporter reports that the Access Hollywood video humanized Trump and convinced her to vote for him. It is going nowhere fast when a woman trivializes sexual assault not simply by condoning Trump’s remark and implying that ‘boys will be boys’, but declaring that the video was a crucial factor convincing her to vote for Trump. It is probably not a surprising remark to those who study rape culture, except perhaps for the fact it was made by a woman. It is remarkable nonetheless, and serves as an example that should be appreciated by all who worry about rape culture, because it reveals just how deep-rooted certain attitudes are that contribute to rape culture.
This woman did not merely forgive Trump for coarse behavior. This woman conveyed her belief that coarse behavior humanized him and was a crucial factor in her support for him. Voters often express a desire for a leader they can share a beer with, someone who can relate to them, someone whom they can trust because he talks like they do. For this woman, Trump talks like men do. She knows in her heart that every man talks like that. It was a deciding factor in convincing her that Trump knows about the lives of people like her.
This is, of course, only one anecdote. But the fact remains that Trump was elected president, so millions of other people also condoned his statement, and it does not seem farfetched to presume that they also believed that Trump’s remarks were an innocuous case of ‘boys will be boys’ and perhaps also made him relatable to them. I am not one who believes that Trump was elected explicitly on a platform of sexism, racism, or xenophobia. I believe he was elected by riding a torrential wave of anti-elitism in America and benefitted from a profoundly weak opponent nominated by the Democratic Party. People voted for him in large measure because they see a successful entrepreneur who is bound to no one and can come ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington. They voted for him in spite of, not because of, his inflammatory rhetoric about race and gender.
That said, however, I worry that Trump’s election sent a message that America will tolerate a man who traffics not only in race-baiting and xenophobic rhetoric, but shamelessly and thoughtlessly trivializes sexual assault. I worry that the perception that his behavior is normal among men is so endemic among his supporters that, even if they disapprove of what Trump said on the merits, it nevertheless humanized him and did not prevent the election of a blatant sexist to the highest office in the land. I worry, therefore, that a Trump presidency will serve to perpetuate the mores of rape culture that should have been obsolete long ago. Unfortunately, rape culture is alive and well in Trump Nation.
Which is to say, in a significant part of America.