The release of the now-infamous 2005 video in which Donald Trump boasts about what he can do to women may have caused his campaign to spiral downward, but it also has sparked a national conversation about gender and sexual assault. Kelly Oxford invited women to “tweet me your first assault,” and her plea generated over a million responses in a single night. They continue to pour in, describing assaults of all kinds that occurred, for some, at very young ages. For many of those women, the assaults had been a secret they had never told.
While we may thank Trump for sparking this conversation—he’s the Clarence Thomas of the new millennium—we should not lose sight of what, exactly, he claims on that video that he has done to women—and just as troubling, his non-apologetic apology for it. The video, as everyone in the country probably knows, was taken when Donald Trump and Billy Bush (now suspended from his Today show job) were disembarking from an Access Hollywood bus, en route to a cameo appearance on a soap opera.
The Video, The Critical Response, and Trump’s Mean-Girl Apology
In the 2005 video, Trump describes a prior unsuccessful sexual pursuit of a woman who both Trump and Billy Bush know as follows:
I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it.… I did try and fuck her. She was married…. I moved on her very heavily…. I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married.
And all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything.
Billy Bush then directs Trump’s attention to the woman who is waiting to greet them at the end of the bus ride. After they lewdly describe her in eager anticipation, Trump adds:
I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
When they descend the bus stairs, Billy talks the woman, Arianne Zucker, into an awkward hug for The Donald. (She doesn’t learn until 11 years later that the two men had spent the previous minutes lewdly objectifying her and discussing a how-to approach for touching her without asking.)
Trump was almost universally condemned for his comments, including by his running mate, Mike Pence, who gave this statement:
As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the eleven-year-old video released yesterday. I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them.
Trump’s comments were described in the media as extremely lewd, obscene, and profane. His remarks have also been criticized for being “disrespectful” to women and for objectifying them.
Like Pence, many commentators prefaced their criticism with a list of their female relatives—sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, grandmothers, and so on—as if this is wrong only because men feel protective towards the women in their lives. But as Samantha Bee explained in her Full Frontal takedown of Trump: “Trump’s comments are not wrong because you have female relatives. Guess what? A surprising number of Americans have female relatives.” (Cut to video of 100% pie chart graphic.) His comments were wrong, she explains, “because women are human.”
Trump first attempted to deflect attention from the video by dismissing it as “locker room banter” and expressed regret “if anyone was offended.” But that didn’t satisfy very many people (and was denounced by athletes for demeaning them and their locker rooms). Later that night, he released a short video his campaign billed as an apology. And while he did use the word apology, his tone was combative, and he spent more time chastising Bill Clinton for his alleged conduct than he did reflecting on his own conduct.
The almost-universal condemnation of Trump’s comments in that tape is welcome, but the focus on lewdness, profanity, disrespect, and the carefully guarded female relatives misses something fundamental. What Trump describes on that tape is not just offensive, it is sexual assault. His attempt to deflect criticism by calling his remarks “locker room banter” and by drawing comparisons to Bill Clinton (and gathering up all the women who have ever accused him of sexual misconduct) does nothing to undermine the fact that he describes (and seems to enjoy, plan for, and recommend) conduct that actively foments the rape culture that makes sexual assault so prevalent.
The Definition of Sexual Assault: Consent Matters
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual conduct or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” It includes attempted rape. And, the Justice Department definition makes clear, it includes unwanted fondling, groping and kissing.
Recall just some of Trump’s comments:
I did try and fuck her. She was married… I moved on her very heavily…. I moved on her like a bitch.
I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
Whether or not Trump actually did the things he described—and whether or not his actual conduct met the legal definition of sexual assault—his comments show a stunning disregard for whether the objects of his attentions consent to his conduct. (Perhaps not surprisingly, women have been coming out of the woodwork to allege sexual misconduct by Trump everywhere from airplane seats to beauty pageants.) His comments express gleeful pride that he is powerful and famous enough to sexually assault women with impunity.
Men using wealth, power, and privilege to impose themselves on women is nothing new. It has been a pillar of patriarchal societies for millennia. In the modern era, we have seen the growth and development of robust legal doctrines designed to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault and to provide better remedies to victims and punishment for offenders. In the sexual harassment in employment context, the legal protections followed the consciousness-raising of surveys in the 1970s documenting widespread harassment and abuse of working women. Public consciousness followed years later, especially after Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearing, in which law professor Anita Hill alleged that he had sexually harassed her while she worked for him at the EEOC. In the sexual assault context, there have been multiple movements to raise attention and awareness about rape, with the most recent focus being on campus sexual assault. Both anti-discrimination and criminal laws have been invoked to address that problem, although not particularly successfully. But common across different contexts is an awareness that women are systematically disadvantaged by a society in which they are objectified, harassed, and assaulted far too frequently.
What is new is seeing and hearing a major-party candidate for President of the United States talk so explicitly and with such braggadocio about his ability to sexually assault women, and hearing this diatribe one month before the presidential election.
This bombshell comes at a time when our nation has been having an important and increasingly urgent conversation about sex, consent, and sexual assault. It comes at a time when the one-in-five statistic—the number of women who will be subjected to sexual assault during their college years—has gained new prominence and inspired new initiatives from the Department of Education (DOE) to require colleges to be more proactive and responsive in addressing sexual assault on campus.
In response to advocacy on behalf of sexual assault survivors, the DOE has made campus sexual assault a priority and is currently investigating over two hundred universities for allegedly failing to respond promptly obligations. As a result, colleges and universities around the country have been engaged in an ambitious project to educate students about sex and consent, to ensure that sexual conduct is based on actual, not assumed, consent, and to urge students who witness the violation of these norms to step forward as active bystanders and intervene—as the two men did who came across Brock Turner sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The juxtaposition of the concerted efforts made in recent years to end sexual assault on college campuses with the explicit disregard of consent heard on the Access Hollywood tape is nothing short of stunning.
Understanding Sexual Assault in a Rape-Prone Culture
Sexual assault is not just a biologically-driven behavior reflecting poor impulse control by the individuals who do it. Decades of research tell us that it is a culturally specific phenomenon, and its prevalence is affected by cultural and sociological factors. Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist, introduced the term “rape-prone culture” over three decades ago. She found that some cultures have very little rape, while others have a great deal of it. Rape-prone cultures were those in which rape is excused as an expression of masculinity.
Decades later, research on sexual assault bears out Sanday’s findings. The incidence of sexual assault is highest in settings where there are high levels of agreement with rape-supportive attitudes, such as beliefs that women are not “really” raped unless it was a stranger, with a weapon, using force. When women are devalued and objectified, and men engage in status-competition for bragging rights about their sexual exploits, the environment is primed for sexual assault to occur with impunity. The perception of male peer support for sexual assault is one of the most significant indicators of the likelihood that a man will sexually assault.
One of the most marked features of a rape-prone culture is the ability to “neutralize” the occurrence of sexual assault by denying it, normalizing it, and excusing it when it does occur. It is not just the perpetrators, or even just peers and bystanders, who are likely to engage in “neutralizing” behaviors in rape-prone cultures. The women who are sexually assaulted are likely to as well. Research on “acknowledgment” finds that between 42 percent and 73 percent of women who have experienced conduct meeting the legal definition of rape do not acknowledge that they have been raped, and they are particularly unlikely to do so when the assailant was someone they knew.
The perfect storm for a rape-prone culture is to combine high levels of perceived peer support for sexual coercion and high levels of objectification of women, with the neutralization of sexual assault (deny, normalize, excuse) when it does occur.
Which brings us back to the Access Hollywood tape of the infamous bus ride. (Bus-ghazi, as Samantha Bee refers to it.) And the Trump campaign’s response to it.
Presidential Politics, Meet Rape Culture
As mentioned above, Trump responded to the released tape through Twitter, dismissing the video as “locker room banter,” comparing himself favorably to Bill Clinton, and expressing regret “if anyone was offended.” (Ben Carson tried to defend Trump by suggesting that he was a “billionaire playboy” at the time the video was made, but was met with a flood of responses on Twitter pointing out that he was 59 years old and married, with a pregnant wife.)
The “apology” video released later that same night featured Trump, who expressed embarrassment, briefly apologized, and then elaborated the comparison to Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct from decades ago. The tone was combative, not apologetic. But when confronted about the video in the second presidential debate, Trump returned to his “locker room banter” explanation and offered no apology. He again compared himself to Bill Clinton, whom he described as “far worse.” All in all, the campaign’s response was a perfect map of rape culture: deny harm, deflect responsibility, and normalize what happened.
The “just words” part of the explanation obscures the key fact that the words are about things that the candidate claims he has done to women. Characterizing his descriptions of forcing himself on a woman, uninvited kissing and grabbing women by their genitalia as “just words” is classic denial of harm. And it has sparked an outcry from women who have experienced all this (and more) at one time or another (or many times) in their lives. The tweet-me-your-assault campaign is an undeniable testament to the prevalence of sexual assault and the harm it imposes on women. The collected tweets are both empowering and painful to read. What Trump describes as mere words, women have experienced as de-humanizing objectification and aggressions that make you feel small and vulnerable.
Another key move in neutralizing Trump’s conduct is to repeatedly refer to what happened on the bus as “locker room banter.” Let’s start with the fact that this was not a locker room. The bus was part of a professional venture in which Trump would promote his “brand” in cooperation with other professionals in the entertainment business. But even if we grant that “locker room” behavior is what happens in professional settings, many men, including professional athletes, have objected to this depiction. Not in my locker room, they have insisted. Certainly many men would not play the sycophant role of egging on a teammate’s bragging about sexually assaulting women. Newer research on men and masculinity has found that alpha-male masculinity is changing, is more inclusive of egalitarian norms, and that it is possible to secure respect and status among men in locker room settings without such toxic displays.
And yet, the locker room has indeed been the site of some extreme and sexually abusive behaviors. Without in any way painting all locker rooms with the same brush, it must be acknowledged that some men, in some locker rooms, have engaged in precisely such “banter,” and encouraged each other in sexually assaulting and exploiting women to prove their own masculinity to one another. That this has indeed happened—in locker rooms and elsewhere—is precisely the problem. To excuse it because it has happened before in locker rooms is itself inexcusable. Holding up the male locker room as a space where “whatever happens, happens” is itself part of the problem. A site of exclusion, the sanctity of the locker room has been used to justify abuse toward women—just ask Lisa Olsen, the professional sports journalist who was sexually harassed for violating this sacred space while doing her job interviewing New England Patriots football players.
The locker room is also a site where men have been known to jockey for hierarchy in proving their masculinity to other men in ways that are sexually abusive to other men, particularly if they don’t join in on the norms of objectifying and exploiting women. The federal docket is full of Title IX cases in which the locker room is the site of alpha males proving their masculinity by abusing and humiliating other males who are perceived as less masculine in the locker room hierarchy. Many of these cases involve brutal sexual humiliation that ends in the victim leaving school or attempting suicide. Not everything that happens in the locker room is wholesome, harmless, or even lawful. We should take a closer look at what happens in some locker rooms before dismissing Trump’s bragging as harmless because it was merely “locker room banter.”
But perhaps the most egregious way that the Trump campaign’s response aligns with rape culture is in the deflection. Bill Clinton, he deflected, he has done “far worse.” Yes, “boys will be boys”—another alpha-male has done worse, get used to it, it’s nothing new. You can search the phrase “boys will be boys” and find it in just about every Title IX sexual harassment case, where boys in school settings learn how to be “men” and get away with it. The “boys will be boys” mantra normalizes sexual harassment and sexual aggression, especially for the powerful, privileged men who can “do anything.” All the more galling is that this deflection is aimed to discredit not the man alleged to have done worse, but his wife for being “complicit” in it. Blaming the wife for the husband’s infidelities is old-school stuff, replete with the sexual double-standard in which men can stray (if they do it discretely) but the wife is to blame (for not keeping him in line and satisfying his needs) if it gets out of hand. We should not excuse the allegations of sexual assault against Bill Clinton or anyone else. But, one man’s alleged misconduct is no excuse for another man’s misconduct. Trump has invoked the play-book from the rape culture: this is normal stuff, nothing worse (or as bad) as what other men do, no fair to single me out.
Since the tape’s release, a significant number of Republicans have disavowed Trump’s conduct and withdrawn their support. Their rejection of the Trump campaign’s neutralization tactics strikes a blow to rape culture. And yet, many of their responses express their outrage in relation to their roles as husbands and fathers of daughters. Some have emphasized that the woman mentioned on the tape whom he aggressively tried to f*** was married. This framing subtly underscores a key gender ideology at the heart of rape culture: the good girl/bad girl divide that leaves some women deserving of protection and others getting what they asked for. Rape culture requires a set of girls and women who cannot effectively complain. It requires dividing women between respectable “class acts” (the marriageable ones) and smutty bimbos who are appropriate outlets for male sexual aggression.
The feminist movement has worked hard to destabilize that divide, but with only partial success. The men who condemn Trump’s actions by imagining their wives and daughters as the objects of Trump’s aggressions should ask themselves whether there is any woman who deserves his uninvited sexual groping. Women without the privilege of having powerful husbands and fathers have always been the most vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment. Trump’s misogyny and objectification of less privileged women has not drawn the same level of ire as the comments on the bus. His fat-shaming of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, for example, generated more outrage than his racialized slur, calling her “Miss Housekeeping.” Rape culture depends on hierarchies among women. The disavowals of Trump’s bragging about sexual assault would strike a deeper blow to the culture that sustains such conduct if they were based on empathy for all women, not just daughters and wives.
Some things, once known, cannot be unknown. The words and images on that tape cannot be unheard or unseen. Condoning, minimizing, or deflecting the content of that tape risks condoning sexual assault. And dismissing those words as “locker room banter” or “just words” reinforces the rape culture that our society struggles to fight.