A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault

“It’s only been a week,” Liz Plank tweeted. “But we’ve all aged a year.”

Despite how ugly it’s been, though, the last ten days of the presidential campaign does have one redeeming feature: Sexual assault is being discussed in a setting where the whole country is listening.

I’m not naive enough to think that everyone is going to “get it” now and take a more enlightened attitude. (As someone once told me, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”) But men who are open to understanding the topic better might be paying attention now. Women who had repressed thinking about it, or comparing experiences with other women, might now be having those thoughts and conversations. Teens and even younger boys and girls might be learning that things they had come to accept as normal, or even OK, are really not.

I believe the country as a whole is getting a powerful lesson about four things:

  • how ubiquitous sexual assault is,
  • the myths so many of us believe about it,
  • why women often don’t tell anyone about it,
  • the tactics men use to get away with it.

#notokay. Twitter is famous for insults and snark, but the most powerful hashtags are the ones that gather testimony. Shortly after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape came out, author Kelly Oxford tweeted:

Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.

Last I checked, that had been re-tweeted more than 13 thousand times. Oxford reported that over the next weekend tweets came in at the rate of 50 per minute. On October 9, her Twitter feed got more than 20 million views.

Eventually she created the hashtag #notokay to move the discussion off her personal feed and open it to more than just first-assault stories.

This is something that pre-internet journalism couldn’t do. A 20th-century reporter could uncover one paradigmic story, or at most a handful of them, and tell those stories in a way that invited readers to identify or empathize, maybe adding a statistical claim that X% of women have had similar experiences. But there was no way to capture the sheer avalanche of testimony. Scrolling down the responses to Oxford’s original tweet, I was struck by their unity-in-diversity. The settings are infinitely varied: a bus, up against a door at granny’s, a couch at home, a bedroom at an aunt’s house, a Halloween party, a friend’s apartment, at work, at the supermarket. The perpetrators are strangers, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, cousins, uncles, teachers. Each tweet has its own unique details, yet pounds the same theme like a hammer.

And the hammer doesn’t stop. A TV news segment or a newspaper feature has to end, so you can leave with a feeling of being done. But a viral tweet defeats you; at some point you just decide to quit reading, knowing that there’s more and will always be more.

Liz Plank took that insight one step further and raised this question:

Trying to find ONE woman who has never experienced a man sexually touching her without their consent.

Scrolling through that hashtag, I still haven’t found the “I’m the one” tweet.

Myths. The typical folk explanation of sexual assault is simple: A man’s libido overcomes his impulse control. From there it’s a short trip to a long list of standard excuses and explanations:

  • virility. I just have such a strong sex drive, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by it.
  • it’s a compliment. You’re just so sexy, how could I stop myself?
  • it’s your fault. Your skirt is so short; your jeans are so tight; your neckline is so low. When you just put it all out there like that, what do you think is going to happen?
  • it’s inevitable. Boys will be boys. You can’t expect us to control ourselves all the time. (Or, as Trump put it on Twitter: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”)

and so on.

This is worse than just “objectification” of women, because we would never tolerate similar thinking about actual objects: If your drive for acquisition overcomes your impulse control, you’re a thief, period. The strength of your greed does you no credit; you’re not complimenting the wealth of the people you steal from; it’s not their fault for having such nice stuff or displaying it so attractively; and we don’t give in to the inevitability of theft whenever valuable objects are visible to people who might desire them. When it comes to object-lust, self-control is the price of staying in civilization; if you can’t muster it, we’ll lock you away.

But beyond moral considerations, that libido vs. control frame loses its explanatory power when you pay attention to women’s stories, or to the complexity of the male psyche. All women (or very nearly all) get victimized, not just the sexy, popular, or flirtatious ones. Sometimes it’s specifically the unpopular women, the ones no one is looking out for, who get assaulted. Sometimes it’s girls too young to understand what they’re supposedly “asking for”. Sometimes men are seeking dominance rather than pleasure. Sometimes it’s about asserting control over a woman whose self-assurance seems threatening. Sometimes it’s part of a man’s internal process that has nothing to do with the victim at all: Maybe assaulting a stranger is a man’s way of taking revenge on his spouse, or on the women who won’t go out with him. Maybe he’s been humiliated by his boss and wants to humiliate someone else to feel less helpless.

Another myth is that all men do it, or would if they were brave enough. At the very least, they wish they could do it and envy the men who do; so when they get together and trade “locker room talk”, they brag about real or imagined assaults the way Trump did with Billy Bush.

I remember believing something similar in junior high. (Maybe the worst thing Trump has done to me personally is make me remember junior high.) To see up a girl’s skirt or down her blouse, or to touch her somewhere we weren’t supposed to — it was a game: They defended the “goal” while we tried to “score”. To put it in a childish terms, it was like Yogi Bear trying to steal picnic baskets while the ranger tried to stop him. But imagine being an older Yogi, looking back at what once had seemed like youthful highjinks and realizing: “Oh my God, I was a bear. People must have been terrified.”

The earlier we can get that message to boys and young men, the better. And in some cases we are.

One afternoon, while reporting for a book on girls’ sexual experience, I sat in on a health class at a progressive Bay Area high school. Toward the end of the session, a blond boy wearing a school athletic jersey raised his hand. “You know that baseball metaphor for sex?” he asked. “Well, in baseball there’s a winner and a loser. So who is supposed to be the ‘loser’ in sex?”

Fortunately, this week many admired and imitated athletes came forward to say that the Trump/Bush conversation is not normal locker-room banter. Like LeBron James:

What is locker room talk to me? It’s not what that guy said. We don’t disrespect women in no shape or fashion in our locker room. That never comes up. Obviously, I got a mother-in-law, a wife, a mom and a daughter and those conversations just don’t go on in our locker room. What that guy was saying, I don’t know what that is. That’s trash talk.

Even Trump’s friend Tom Brady walked away from a microphone rather than defend him on this.

Why don’t they tell? One of Trump’s main defenses against his accusers has been: Why didn’t they say anything at the time? If these incidents have been happening for decades, why is this all coming out only now, just a few weeks before the election?

In particular, he wondered about People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff whose account of being shoved up against a wall and forcibly kissed by Trump while she was at Mar-a-Lago to interview Donald and Melania about their first anniversary seemed (to me) particularly compelling. He challenged her at a rally Thursday in Ohio:

I ask her a simple question. Why wasn’t it part of the story that appeared 12 years ago? Why didn’t they make it part of the story … if she had added that, it would have been the headline.

Picture what Trump is assuming: If Stoynoff had made such a claim against Trump, with no witnesses or physical evidence, her editors would have simply believed her, and would have been willing to put their magazine behind her in a battle against a famously litigious billionaire. Weigh the likelihood of that scenario against the explanation Stoynoff had already published before Trump spoke:

Back in my Manhattan office the next day, I went to a colleague and told her everything.

“We need to go to the managing editor,” she said, “And we should kill this story, it’s a lie. Tell me what you want to do.”

But, like many women, I was ashamed and blamed myself for his transgression. I minimized it (“It’s not like he raped me…”); I doubted my recollection and my reaction. I was afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me, especially if I got his coveted PEOPLE feature killed.

“I just want to forget it ever happened,” I insisted. The happy anniversary story hit newsstands a week later and Donald left me a voicemail at work, thanking me.

“I think you’re terrific,” he said. “The article was great and you’re great.”

Yeah, I thought. I’m great because I kept my mouth shut.

Notice that the idea of making the assault part of the story never comes up; it’s not even suggested by Stoynoff’s colleague.

Liz Plank created the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport, which is another assemblage of testimony like this:

Because I was a medical student and he was the attending surgeon

Because he was my landlord. Because I was 21 and feared homelessness. Because my father told me to figure it out myself.

Because it was easier to pretend it didn’t happen than to face the police, the courts and my perpertrator.

But maybe the best explanation of why women don’t report sexual assault is watching Trump trash the ones who reported on him, which Plank wrote about in “Donald Trump is giving us a master class in #WhyWomenDontReport“.

While I was on set Wednesday night with Chris Hayes, [Trump spokesperson A.J. Delgado] said, “If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”

Any reasonable woman?

Was it reasonable for Jessica Leeds to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Lou Dobbs tweet her personal phone number and address, exposing her private information to his hundreds of thousands of followers? Was it reasonable for Natasha Stoynoff to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Donald Trump suggest she was too ugly for him to be interested in sexually assault her?

Trump said his accusers are “doing [it] probably for a little fame. They get some free fame. It’s a total set-up.” But who exactly wants this kind of fame? Are any women out there watching Jessica Leeds or Natasha Stoynoff and thinking “I wish people would pay attention to me like that”?

And that brings us to men’s tactics.

Tactics. Between the debate Sunday and the first wave of new accusers coming forward Wednesday, Liz Plank used Trump’s debate performance as an example of the tactics of abusive men. She listed

  1. Humiliation. Trump’s pre-debate press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton wasn’t about seeking justice for them. It was about humiliating Hillary Clinton.
  2. Deflection. Trump minimized his behavior as “locker room talk”, and quickly segued to “ISIS chopping off heads”.
  3. Intimidation. He threatened to put Clinton in jail, and loomed behind her “in a way that almost made me feel unsafe for her”.
  4. Gaslighting. In other words: creating an entire alternate reality to make victims question their own perceptions and memories. For example, Trump asserted that it was Clinton, not him, who owes President Obama an apology for the birther movement. “So if you feel like you’re going insane during this election, that’s Donald Trump gas lighting you over and over and over.”

What we’ve seen since just bears this out. He’s been heaping humiliation on the women who have accused him. (They’re “horrible, horrible liars” who he obviously couldn’t have assaulted because they aren’t attractive enough.) He’s been deflecting his own guilt onto Bill Clinton (whose accusers should be believed even though Trump’s shouldn’t). He’s threatened completely ridiculous lawsuits against The New York Times and People for publishing women’s accounts of his misconduct. And (completely without evidence) he has gaslighted the nation by putting forward a theory that makes him the victim of a conspiracy involving the global financial elite and the entire corporate media. (He’s not a sleazeball who abuses women, he’s a messianic hero who suffers these outrageous attacks in order to save the common people. He’s not blowing an election Republicans might have won, he’s going to be defrauded at the polls.)

But the important thing to remember for the future is that this is not an isolated incident and Trump is not a unique character. Lots and lots of men do this kind of thing. They do it to anybody. They do it because they can. They have a standard list of excuses for doing it. They have tactics for getting women to shut up about it and men not to believe the women who don’t shut up.

The thing to remember the next time you hear something like this is that you’ve heard it before. It’s all part of the pattern.

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Comments

  • Peggy Duesenberry  On October 17, 2016 at 11:01 am

    Doug, this is the best thing I’ve seen in the Weekly Sift. Thanks for a fine piece of writing.

  • Raymond Horton  On October 17, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Thank you. Excellent work.

  • Nancy Rubinstein  On October 17, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I saw Liz Plank’s video, and it was excellent.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On October 17, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Dr. Chris Courtois (e.g., “Healing the Incest Wound”) underscores that the attempt to tells others, to disclose the abuse can be equally, if not more, traumatic than the abuse itself. I appreciate that your essay brings this aspect of assault/abuse out of the shadows.

  • Jen E.  On October 17, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    Doug, thank you for this piece; it is sensitive and thoughtful in a way that most of the media coverage has not been. I am a woman who has been raped, sexually assaulted and battered; Watching the way Trump has handled this scandal (and the way he interacts with women in general) has reminded me thoroughly of my abuser, and his surrogates of the worst of his defenders, even down to the language they use; it’s almost like there is a playbook. It is a sad state of affairs to have my sexual assault trauma triggered by the election for the person that will lead our country. I cannot imagine what the next 4 years will be like for me and women like me if Trump somehow makes it into the White House. I have a tiny ember of hope that this scandal will allow us to make a small step in the right direction.

  • Kate  On October 17, 2016 at 8:35 pm

    Studies on a college population showed that 6-7% of male students admitted to actions which constitute rape. 80% of those who admit to rape have already done it more than once averaging 6 times. On a population of military recruits the number was about 8% — with similar figures on repeats. So most men don’t rape but we all probably know more than one who has done so repeatedly. Four out of five rapists repeat and they tend to get smoother over time. They don’t acknowledge it as rape. Generally, they, like Trump, see their behavior as normative. Also 80% of the time women are raped by someone they know — acquaintance rape. Missoula, written by Jon Krakauer is a good book on campus rape and rape in general. Not all assault is male on female. There is same sex assault and even female on male. Even less data is available for those groups.

  • Abby Hafer  On October 17, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    There is another really simple answer for why women didn’t report the assaults earlier, and are doing it now. It’s this: They didn’t bloody well feel like it then and they do feel like it now! They are not going to let Don the con tell them when they can, or cannot talk about something. Do you realize that Don the Con is trying to set up a dynamic in which he gets to control what women talk about, and when? This dynamic must be resisted. It’s simple: Women will talk about what they feel like talking about, when they feel like talking about it. Just like everybody else.

    If you want to make a more general comparison, think about your friends and relatives in the military. They often don’t talk about the bad things that they’ve seen or experienced. Then maybe at some point later in life, they do. No one questions them as to why they didn’t talk about it earlier. It’s understood that people will talk about difficult or traumatic experiences when they’re ready to, and it is disrespectful to question their timing. We understand this about vets, especially the male ones. But women? They are expected to talk about their traumas within hours or days of their occurring, or society doesn’t believe them. Why is that?

    • jh  On October 17, 2016 at 9:25 pm

      It’s just another tactic to control the victim. It’s the same for people of color. It’s a power play when you think of it. They tell you when to say something, how to say it, what to do… at no point do they introduce the idea that you have rights as well such as what you mentioned… that women who have experienced trauma have as much right to heal and process and they are the one’s who get to choose when they want to disclose.

    • weeklysift  On October 19, 2016 at 8:19 am

      Abby, that’s a good point.

      In addition to controlling women and people of color, I think there’s a general bias towards denial of things that make us uncomfortable, like rape or unjustified police violence. If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s comforting to believe it doesn’t really happen all that often, and that the stories you hear are just stories.

Trackbacks

  • By Making Them Cry | The Weekly Sift on October 17, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    […] This week’s featured post is “A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault“. […]

  • By The Yearly Sift 2016 | The Weekly Sift on December 26, 2016 at 8:56 am

    […] And finally, one long-term theme of the Sift is the decline of democratic norms and institutions. In March, I updated that with “Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues“. As Democrats have to decide just how obstructionist to be during the Trump years, I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to update it further. Another perennial theme is race and privilege, which led to  “My Racial Blind Spots“, “Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy“, “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights“, “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean? Part II“, and “A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault“. […]

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