In masculine culture, sexual activity is often spoken of in terms of conquest. Donald Trump gives us a potent case study into how our society speaks about sexual assault.
Our world can be a surprising place. I generally think I know the kind of world I live in, but then occasionally something happens that makes me question everything I thought I knew about society. Right now I’m thinking about politics. In general I thought that we were thoughtful, reasonable people. Twenty or so years ago I thought we would never elect a buffoon to the Office of the President. Then I found out I was wrong. Again four or so years ago I had to rethink my assumptions about us when we elected a known sex offender to that same office. What I once assumed to be one of the most disqualifying, unforgivable behaviors was now glossed over and ignored by a majority of Americans. Or so it seemed.
Let me point out, before people get too upset with me, that it is very difficult to make generalizations. I am not saying that people who voted for Trump don’t care about sexual misconduct. I’m not saying they’re OK with violence against women. And I’m certainly not saying that they voted for Trump because they approve of these behaviors. Just like I doubt anyone voted for George W. Bush because of his buffoonery.
I’m also not inclined to say that people were ignorant of this behavior. Decisions like who to vote for are always difficult. Judging a person—or a person’s decisions—is always a complicated, imperfect venture. One I don’t care to attempt. But what made me question what I thought I knew about people in our society is that I thought certain things were unacceptable—clearly over some established line—and then I found out that they can be forgiven.
From one perspective, I think this is wonderful news. I am all about forgiveness. I would give anyone another chance. Particularly, as a known sex offender myself, part of me is a little happy that someone with such a background can rise all the way to the Presidency.
But, on the whole, the situation doesn’t actually make me feel good. See, forgiveness is not the same as denial. I would give anyone another chance, I would forgive anyone, but not without a reckoning. Before I let bygones be bygones, I would want some recognition of a problem, some correction of that problem, and an intent to do better in the future. With Trump, none of that has happened. He claims he did nothing wrong. He continues to demonstrate the very same behavior (behavior I assumed was unacceptable). And his supporters are either in complete denial, or they dismiss the problem as insignificant compared to other problems of the world.
I’m not here to talk about politics, though. I’m here to talk about talking about sex. The Atlantic is releasing a series of articles about the women who have come out to talk about their experiences of sexual assault by Donald Trump, and so I thought this situation deserved a look.
Natasha Stoynoff went to Mar-a-Lago to interview Donald and Melania Trump. It was their first anniversary, and Natasha’s assignment, she expected, would have her write an article for People magazine that highlighted how happy the couple had been. Instead, Donald lured her into an isolated room and, as he would likely say, “moved on her.” According to Natasha and the six people she confided in at the time, Donald pushed her against a wall and pressed his weight into her. She immediately put up her hands to stop him, but he continued to put his tongue into her mouth.
Incidents like this are called various things. Donald might say he moved on her very heavily. Natasha might say he sexually assaulted her. The writer for the Atlantic, E. Jean Carroll, said he leaned on her “like an oversexed mastadon” and shoved his tongue down her throat.
Now, I was about to say that in Michigan, forcing someone to kiss you would be considered criminal sexual conduct. I looked it up, though, and that’s actually not the case. “Sexual contact” is criminal when force is used, but it turns out that a kiss is not considered sexual contact. Touching someone’s groin, inner thigh, genital area, buttock, or breast, however… that would be criminal sexual conduct.
Criminal or not, it was unwanted, forcible, and decidedly creepy. But it’s also uncomfortably common. Apparently journalists can’t be bothered to keep track of an exact count of accusations, but dozens of women have accused this man of something similar, or even rape. Donald has been known to brag about these incidents in relative private, and in public he denies any wrongdoing.
Modus Operandi of A Serial Assaulter
There have been enough accusations that a pattern has emerged. Donald tends to dismiss accusations of sexual assault or misconduct by saying he never met the woman, or additionally that she’s not pretty enough, not his type. Reading between the lines, he is implying that of course he would rape the right type of woman, just not these ones.
This attitude is incredibly discomforting to someone who would see women as worthy of respect as autonomous human beings, but it fits right in with the masculine culture that sees women as sex objects, worthy of conquest. In the culture of locker rooms and frat houses, sex is not so much an intimate act as it is an exercise of power. It is a way to prove one’s masculinity, his ability to be aggressive and take control.
So, is Donald right when he says he can do whatever he wants with women? It’s not so important whether or not a woman lets him “do it,” apparently, but it is clear that the culture finds it acceptable. Or, at least, it is normal. This is expected behavior among men. At least, that’s the kind of masculinity that is expressed in all-male settings like dorms, fraternities, and locker rooms. Maybe even in Donald’s board rooms.
Of course, not any man can get away with rape. Donald qualifies his statement: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” A dominant male has some level of immunity from criticism by other males. They fear their own masculinity might be questioned if they speak up. They might be seen as weak or not “one of the boys” if they question the masculine actions of another male, particularly a dominant one.
Let’s shift gears and look at the way Natasha spoke about the incident. A dedicated professional, she continued with the interview. Of course, she was preoccupied with what Donald did when Melania was out of the room, and anything they said about their marriage became quite questionable. In the end, she never did write the story.
She thought about it. She thought about writing the story of her direct experience with Donald. But that wasn’t the sort of story People magazine usually publishes. After she left the interview, she spoke with her colleagues about what happened, and they discussed options. In the end, they ended up just doing nothing. Too complicated, too difficult to say anything publicly.
Of course, eventually Natasha did speak out publicly. It made national headlines, because then Donald was running for public office. And then it changed her life forever.
Donald’s predictable response? “Look at her…. I don’t think so.”
I’m sure it was a hard decision to make an accusation public. Just like the boys in the locker room who might not speak up when one of their “bros” does or says something over the line, women too feel like they have something to lose when they question a dominant male. Another woman to accuse Donald, debated whether or not to make her accusation public: “But in the scheme of things, it wasn’t a rape. It was a forcible touch. I wondered: Is it worth associating my name with that?”
It is one thing to make a public claim and not be believed. But it is another thing entirely to have that claim define your life. Natasha, Karena, and many others are now known as “one of Trump’s accusers.” It is one thing for someone guilty of wrongdoing to have their life defined by their wrongdoing. At least there is some sense that maybe they deserve to be judged by an instance of bad behavior. But when society judges the accuser in a similar way… Why? Why do we hold a person in the light of their worst accusation? What is the sense behind victim shaming?
Those of us in polite society like to pretend that everything is fine. It is too difficult to think about the bad things that happen in the world. So we try to ignore those things. We might turn off the TV when we see starving children. We might dismiss misogynistic and abusive behavior from one of our leaders as an isolated incident or an inconsequential character flaw. And in the same way, we put distance between us and the accusers, because they, too, are a reminder of the troubles in the world that we’d rather not think about.
“Forever,” Karena says. “And as a woman, if you ever come forward with any allegation, it’s like you’re tainted. They pick apart your work. They pick apart your appearance.”
Karena made her accusation public in a press conference. Immediately after, she received hundreds of hateful messages including multiple death threats. Were these people expressing their hatred out of defense for Donald? Or maybe they were defending patriarchy as a whole.
It makes me wonder if a man making an accusation would be treated in the same way. Unfortunately, such men are few and far between, and they are not given the national spotlight the way women are. Maybe a male being victimized is even more uncomfortable to think about than a woman, and so culturally we suppress that information even more. After all, women are victimized so routinely that another woman victim does not shock the conscience nearly as acutely.
According to a Vanity Fair article from a couple years ago, a male victim of sexual assault said, “Instead of a person who needs help, you are a problem that needs to be eradicated. … There’s a whole system in place, and you’re about to upset the whole thing.”
Male accusers are simultaneously believed more readily and questioned more quickly. Apparently society assumes that men are more trustworthy than women, or maybe that they have less to gain from a salacious accusation. And on the other hand, men are assumed to be stronger and more assertive, thus more capable of saying “no” or resisting an unwanted encounter.
But as far as an accusation changing their life—defining their life—that doesn’t seem to happen in the same way. Men are assumed to be more complicated than that. They are not so easily reduced to their worst accusation. Or maybe it is socially easier for a man to move on, to become someone else beyond “one of his accusers.”
This commentary is more about questions than answers. Why do Donald Trump and his supporters seem to not care about these accusations? Not because they think they aren’t true. It is because they are so normal. What “real man” wouldn’t grope a beautiful woman, given the opportunity? Women are exploited in this way all the time, so why should we make a big deal about it just because we’re talking about a guy running for president? One woman said she didn’t bother telling anyone about Donald groping her breasts because she knew she wasn’t special. She assumed that “he probably did the same thing to 10 different women that night.” Multiply that by the number of sleazebag guys at any given party and we can only guess how common this kind of incident really is.
Women want to be taken seriously. But more than that, they want people to take the problem seriously. People who advocate for the #metoo movement or who want to bring attention to the prevalence of sexual abuse are not trying to get society to recognize it as the normal, everyday occurrence that it is. We want society to recognize it as a problem, as something that should not be normal.
But we are fighting not against denial, not against a refusal to acknowledge the problem. We are in the midst of a culture that understands that this is just the way things are. It may be regrettable, but what can be done about it? Concepts of masculinity as aggressive, dominant, and controlling are so deeply ingrained into our culture that it will likely take a generation or more for that to change.
Maybe we are making progress. Young men today are fearful of being involved in sex at all, lest they be accused of acting without consent. Unfortunately, fear is not healthy either. And consent gets complicated when people don’t feel like they have the power to speak up, or when they fear the consequences of pushing back or not fulfilling someone else’s desires.
A loss of words
Many victims of sexual assault, Donald’s or others, were shocked into paralysis during the incident. They were at a loss of words, they didn’t know how to respond. This obviously doesn’t mean that they consented, and it doesn’t mean the assaulter is excused from seeking consent. But I wonder if it would have made a difference if Donald had asked. Would they have been able to speak up then? Or would they still have felt uncomfortable, incapable of objecting to the desires of a powerful, dominant man? How many people, especially young people, have been in a situation where they did something they didn’t really want to do because they didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings? Because they didn’t want to be labeled a prude, or “no fun?”
Social pressures can be strong things. And consent is only as useful as one’s ability to vocalize it, or to even be willing to consider their own preferences in the first place.
Finding a voice
One woman, reflecting on what she might have said to Donald if she could have found her voice, would have asked, “What kind of man are you?” As a culture, too, maybe we need to ask a similar question: What kind of masculinity are we creating? Because the only way we will ever be able to change our culture of masculinity is if we create a new image of the ideal man.
One reply on “Episode 5: Moving Heavily”
Carroll’s fourth and fifth installments are available now from The Atlantic. Powerful. These are not journalistic in the sense of proving a series of events, but they communicate a personal perspective of experiences that indicates what is at stake in interpersonal sexual interactions. Carroll is facilitating women narrating their sexual selves together.