I will really, really be glad for this election to be over.
This week I had an editorial planned on “Gotcha!” moments and how they can undermine coalition-building, concord and outreach programs. That will be next week’s editorial, now, however, because the ongoing reaction to Donald Trump’s rape tape (as it deserves to be called) is getting increasingly unpleasant, and it absolutely deserves commentary, even with that commentary having poured out in a deluge.
Even though I knew that Trump had fairly clearly at least horrifically abused Ivana, even if he did not actually rape her (and frankly her dodge that she didn’t mean it was criminal is laughable), I still did not expect to find that Trump was that much of an actual monster. We are now getting to the point
where one of the candidates seems to have repeatedly committed a felony.
Finding out that someone who was beloved by so many is so absolutely vile, that he would think nothing of imposing his will on innocent people and potentially even committing soul murder, has thrown me into a loop, and I work with rape victims on a daily basis.
Luckily, the value of Trump to the nation will have been as an object lesson. And from now on, anyone who wants to point to rape culture need not merely look at the reprehensible conduct of Brock Turner and the officially sanctioned apologia (which has been covered extensively at this magazine): we can point to the fact that a man openly discussed how he would force himself onto women and a good half of the culture thought that it was somehow okay because, well, they really don’t want to give up their guns.
“Now, hold on”, someone might say, with some justification. “He might lose the election. This may be the final nail in his coffin. How can there be rape culture when we react this way?”
Simple. Rape culture isn’t literally a culture that says that rape is okay. No one of any prominence is out there trying to legalize rape: even Roosh had to back off when his stupid “thought experiment” was exposed as the vile nonsense it was, claiming it was satire (even though correctly applied it would actually be satire of his position not of the opposition’s). No, rape culture is the culture that produces rape and normalizes it, makes excuses for it, minimizes it, prefers to blame the victim than interrogate not just the perpetrator but also the environment the perpetrator came from, and otherwise minimizes our response to it.
Yes, there are countervailing trends against rape culture. So what? There’s countervailing trends against anything. Is America not a Christian nation because we’re also the leading purveyors of smut globally? No: two contradictory impulses coexist, sometimes in the same person, sometimes merely in the same locality, and sometimes with open antagonism in the same nation. Anyone trying to dispel rape culture would effectively say that you can’t say anything about a culture, because no cultural artifact or trend or trajectory is present to the same degree in all contexts at all times.
And Donald Trump’s clear lack of concern about forcing himself onto women by using his status and power, to say nothing of the deeper issues with the Access Hollywood tape from Billy Bush’s immediate role as enabler to Trump’s clear idea of pressuring women into sleeping with him, is a fractally-complex master class on rape and rape culture.
The Pressure-to-Rape Continuum
The first thing that we see in the Access Hollywood tape that goes beyond the “grab them by the pussy” line is that, to Trump, the various ways that he is able to “move on [someone] like a bitch” are all part of a continuum of efforts to control, manipulate and gain something he wants. He can get away with doing what he wants because he’s rich. He gives his sexual conquests furniture, or meals. He acts as if his conquest is inevitable so his confidence and charm can win out: He told Natasha Stoynoff (who will be an important data point in this piece) that they would “have an affair”, as if it were just a law of nature.
Now, to be fair, Donald Trump is such an emotionally damaged narcissist that it can be hard to draw conclusions about the rest of the population from him. The man needs serious help, not to have his ego further massaged (and then the emptiness of the victory again exposed) by a Presidential run. But there is still something to be said about this reality.
Contrary to popular belief, I am not anti-sex or anti-dating just because I’m a feminist. Just today, I was telling someone about how important sex is for human beings: it’s like eating well or exercising in that we can literally go without it but it really harms our quality of life.
But the very reason that sex is so important and valuable is why there are so many thorny ethical issues around it, and those who act like it’s just being a big Debbie Downer to point that out are being emotional and moral children. Sex creates emotional entanglements. It risks disease and pregnancy. Sexuality can be an immense level of intimacy that can open up our most secret places to others.
People like Trump who use any instrumental means to get the sex that they want out of another person aren’t just grossly dehumanizing that individual and showing a complete lack of interest in anything besides a few body parts: they’re also treating sex like a mere commodity, and indeed a pretty cheap one. If you can get laid for some furniture or some steaks at a nice restaurant, that makes one of the most important encounters that many of us will have into something like a scooter or a new couch.
The irony is that those who claim to be defending sex from us evil feminists is that they are the ones cheapening it to the point of worthlessness.
So even those in our culture who would never consider sexually assaulting a women are still trading in the same dehumanizing rhetoric and conceptions of other human beings, that it’s okay to treat people as a means to an end, when they think about how they can ply what they want with liquor or furniture or food. It’s what leads people to trade sex for a warm meal and a safe place to stay. (And, no, Trump’s use of Tic-Tacs to make himself more appealing doesn’t make it any better either, any more than the Tic-Tacs can cover up his sleaze: it’s again about how he is perceived, not about the needs of the other person).
Billy Bush As Cackling Court Jester
Then there’s Billy Bush in the video. Bush later claimed that he was uncomfortable by what Trump said. Maybe he’s not being disingenuous: maybe he really did feel bad. If so, his reaction was deplorable.
One of the first things one unfortunately learns in many gang-rape stories is this: there’s almost always at least one guy who tries to stop the proceedings, who views it as uncomfortable, but then ends up proceeding. Sometimes they’re afraid for their own life. Sometimes they just get sucked up into the dynamic. Many end up being the person who saves the victim’s life, taking her to a hospital or releasing her from captivity.
Bush is at best that guy, and in reality (though he obviously did not assault anyone as far as any evidence has shown) he’s actually within the analogy a good deal worse. Bush doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who talks like Trump on his own, but when someone like Trump does speak, Bush doesn’t tell him, “Hey, knock it off, she’s here in ten seconds” or “Dude, I have a wife, don’t speak that way”.
That’s how rape culture propagates. People like Trump are not actually all that subtle. People around them usually know that they view women as ornaments, often tend to think that women owe them special respect and subordination, and talk about women in any context as being an extension of their needs. After all, that’s what Trump did every time he called women names like “Miss Piggy”: he was saying that their value and worth was entirely contingent on the degree to which they momentarily pleased him.
Yes, Bush didn’t brag about hurting people. But he didn’t stand up at that moment. And when no one does, along a string of interactions, rapists, molesters and sexual harassers are able to blend into the crowd and gain plausible deniability.
Some have called Billy Bush a pimp as a result. No, let’s not insult pimps that way. As violent and abusive as pimps so often are, at least there is no pretense that they are doing anything besides maintaining a kind of capital to exchange as a commodity. Bush acted like a human being. One of the advantages of prostitution is that there is no deception in the process aside from what people impose upon themselves. But Bush was inherently deceptive.
We Knew He Was A Rapist
Then there’s the fact that, well, we knew Trump was at least a brute to one of the most important women in his life.
The hubbub about Trump’s idiot attorney saying that you can’t rape your spouse is from more than a year ago, specifically late last July. The fact of what Ivana said in the court case, that he had “violated her” after an ostensibly botched procedure, is known from 1993.
Oh, right, remember how Trump opened up his whole campaign by saying that Mexicans (no, not just illegals, as Trump supporters like to dodge) are rapists and drug dealers?
This isn’t just a delicious bit of irony. It isn’t even just an example of psychological projection, where Trump is able to assume that others are monsters because he is.
It’s an indication that the very outrage against rape and rapists can co-exist with actual rapists, let alone apologists for rape.
The fact that swaths of his supporters are providing apologies, excuses and denials for him, despite not actually knowing anything about the cases in question and having no actual reason to believe that Trump is honest, shows in reality how little any of them care about rape. They might resent Mexican rapists because they view Mexicans as subhuman; they might just dislike that it’s a crime but not consider it as a serious and harmful felony.
How many of these people will say that we should “lock them up and throw away the key” when it’s a person of color, or a poor person, or someone they can’t make excuses for?
It gets worse. Trump’s entire campaign appeal now is effectively “law and order”: it was the key theme of his RNC speech. The fact that Trump himself seems to now be involved with serious felonies undermines not only his appeal, but arguments made by his supporters.
Paul LePage, Governor of Maine, has said that Trump should be an authoritarian. His logic is that we’ve had too much harm to the rule of law because of Obama, I guess, so that means that we need an authoritarian to right the ship. It’s a classic authoritarian move.
Of course it’s ludicrous to talk about imposing dictatorship to restore freedom, or to talk about how a society based on the democratic rule of law should impose an authoritarian rule against its own Constitution in order to restore law and order. But it’s doubly ridiculous when one considers that Trump as a lying criminal himself, and possibly a violent one, is the worst candidate to be an authoritarian. He’s not the competent, capable, highly disciplined authoritarian who can take the reins and keep things stable. He’s not Tito or Octavius: he’s Mussolini.
So we can see how this whole authoritarian mindset, with brutal punishments for violating the law, doesn’t actually much care about the damage done by the crime. It cares about “restoring” some sense of order to reality. After all, if they actually cared about the harm of actions, they would care if their response was proportionate, sensible and moral.
And yes, all of this is part of rape culture too. Rape is often a means to restore respect and patriarchal honor.
Who You Associate With
Oh, right, and need we mention that this is a man running in the party of “family values” despite bragging about dodging STDs and repeated infidelities?
Need we mention that Trump has courted Roger Ailes, unconcerned with Ailes’ clear history of sexual harassment that frankly itself at the least borders on rape?
Guilt by association is of course toxic. But you can tell something about someone based on the company they keep. And once again, we are seeing that people in America willfully know so little about sexual assault and victimization that they really get honestly surprised that a man who openly demeans women and who was prominently accused of violating his wife might be willing to force a woman to kiss him.
“Locker Room Talk”
And with all this, we haven’t even covered the laughable apologia that this is all just the way that men talk.
I can’t do much better than Trevor Noah. This wasn’t in a locker room. It was in public. In fact, it was during a media event. Yes, Trump didn’t expect that this wouldn’t be cut out, but he still had a live mic and he was talking talking with a celebrity that he should have no reason to expect would be okay with the conversation.
The fact is that even the idea that “locker room talk” creates this kind of “safe space” (see? white men have them too, they just don’t have to be called that) to allow reprehensible behavior is itself part of rape culture. The idea that, when men are safe, they get to share that they want to not just have bawdy sex but also hurt or demean or pressure or intimidate or cajole or trick others into sex, is part of the way that rape is normalized. Their public face gets to remain hypocritically pure while they share their actual impulses and possibly even their actual actions.
Remember that rape too is usually a private act, happening outside of normal spaces too. Rape occurs in its own kind of locker room.
And think about how disgustingly misandrist all of this is, by the way. How awful is it that, if I happen to be at the gym, there may be some people there who think nothing of treating me like I think rape is something to glibly discuss and sexual victimization isn’t really all that big a deal?
Only when we insist that there’s no “safe space” for demeaning women and that there’s no place where we can get away with this will rape really start to be seriously dealt with in our society.
“It’s All A Conspiracy”
One more rub: when the great men get accused of this crime, the idea that it must be a conspiracy to undermine them is readily available.
Right after offering the idea that this was “locker room” rhetoric, one Trump supporter implied that it must be Paul Ryan as part of a cabal who released the tape.
Notice, of course, that if Ryan released the tape, then it must be damning, so it can’t just be locker room talk. Even he knows, somewhere deep down, that that’s not the way decent human beings talk. He knows that you should be ashamed if that comes to light.
No, It’s Not All Men
Watching this apologia, it can be deeply depressing
But there’s another part to this story: it’s not all men.
In another Daily Show segment, Jordan Klepper points out questioning Trump apologists that none of the men in their life talk like that.
Natasha Stoynoff herself made clear repeatedly that Trump was one of the only people in all of her experience that treated her like an affair was inevitable and like he could just kiss her at will (with the enabling of a butler and apparently even of Melania).
Yes, there are men who say, loudly, that “I wish I could grab as much pussy as he has”. Hillary had to back off the “basket of deplorables” comment, but isn’t it ironic that so many Trump supporters view so many Mexicans as effectively irredeemable criminal scum while themselves voting for an apparently irredeemable misogynist and sexual assailant and themselves wishing they could be like that too? I don’t feel that anyone is irredeemable, but frankly, if anyone is, Trump is up there and much of his base is right behind.
But Stoynoff’s experience and the respondents at the rally show that, yes, most people don’t speak this way or think this way. Maybe some wish they could. Maybe some are only being held back by a thin civilizational veneer. But the fact is that really sexually assaulting or harassing someone requires a real failure of empathy and a really broken way of thinking, and I don’t suspect many of these people could actually force themselves onto anyone.
The deeper reality is the sheer cluelessness. And, yes, being that clueless, about something that important, is part of rape culture too.
Stoynoff accepted that Trump attacked her because it was part of her job. That’s just what happens sometimes when you deal with people.
Even victims normalize the idea. That’s how many of them can pretend it was their fault: well, rape is normal, just like someone taking money from your wallet or maybe helping themselves to your food in the breakroom, so we should just be more careful in the future.
The cluelessness to this, the fact that so many people could be so surprised that Trump would turn out to be at the least a pretend rapist and a serious sexual predator, is perhaps the biggest takeaway.
Once again, the reality is that the end of this election is not going to mean the end of our work, not by a long shot. Trump exposed a tremendous amount of authoritarian, misogynistic, unempathetic, toxic, destructive, and even criminal trends in our nation. They have to be stopped, and once again the moral consciousness of a nation must be slowly raised. It can be easy to despair that that’s impossible. But we’ve slowly made people reject slavery, reject the idea that women are property, and reject the idea that it’s acceptable to kill people for national honor. There’s just more hills to climb and more work to do.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.