When Words Hurt: Donald Trump's Dangerous Sexist Speech
Seemingly harmless rhetoric is indicative of a larger rape culture
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]– 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.” -Donald Trump.
34 days before the 2016 election, a video of the Republican presidential nominee saying these very words after a 2005 conversation with television personality Billy Bush leaked. “Breaking news,” declared CNN; “Donald Trump caught using vulgar language against women” – as if he was not already. Trump’s entire campaign has been a barrage of sexist comment after sexist comment to the point where his female campaign manager is criticized for even taking the job. He has affirmed that he targets television personality Rosie O’Donnell when he calls women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals.” After the first presidential debate, he all but confirmed that he called former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” after tweeting that she was “the worst” contestant he’d ever had.
So why are his 2005 comments so much more appalling than anything else he has said on the campaign trail? Why are influential Republicans calling for him to step down, his running mate denouncing his comments, and even his wife calling what he said “unacceptable and offensive?” Why was this the video that came with a “Warning: graphic content” disclaimer? Why did my jaw drop after he said that he could “grab [women] by the p––-y” at will because of his fame and fortune?
It struck me as I was listening to his comments that, for a society that prides itself on moving forward as much as it does, our next president could very well be a man who cares absolutely nothing for the advancement of women. Rather, when Trump speaks about women in such dehumanizing ways, he advances a rape culture.
“Rape culture” is a term used to describe an environment rooted in the notion that violence against women is a standard occurrence. This culture stems from the socially constructed idea that women are inferior to men and that men must exert their superiority via overly aggressive tendencies. Rape is not driven by the lustful inability of men to control their sex drive; it is an assertion of power. If cisgender men are told by society that they are the most powerful gender, then it only makes sense that they are statistically the most likely perpetrators of sexual assault against cisgender women and trans people. 91% of all victims are women, and 21% of the transgender population has been sexually assaulted.
We hear horrible stories pertaining to sexual assault across the nation. Canadian judge Robin Camp asked a rape victim in court why “she couldn’t just keep her knees together,” simultaneously acquitting her alleged perpetrator. In the most prominent case of sexual assault in recent news, Brock Turner was sentenced to only six months in prison following a rape conviction and was released three months later on good behavior. The jury previously recommended six years. Perhaps the most disgusting component of the trial was Judge Aaron Persky’s assertion that a longer prison sentence would have had a “severe impact” on the disgraced Stanford swimmer – an impact severe enough, apparently, to outweigh the horrific trauma the victim will feel for the rest of her life.
The judicial system’s failing to properly address cases such as these is a result of our society’s general trivialization of sexual and intimate partner violence across the board. The devastating effects felt by assault victims/survivors (predominantly cis and trans women) are not acknowledged; as seen in these cases, focus lies predominantly on the perpetrators. This nonchalance is rooted in and consistently aggravated by the language we use every single day. “That test just bent me over the table.” “I’m going to have my way with this person tonight.” “Don’t rape me with emails, okay?” A seemingly harmless choice of words goes a long way in furthering the toxic climate in which we live.
But why are words so powerful? One could easily look at Donald Trump’s recorded conversation and call it “locker room talk,” as Trump himself did in his “apology.” Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani claimed that all men speak this casually about sexual assault. Actor Scott Baio, one of Trump’s biggest advocates, said on Fox News that Trump merely “talks like a guy…this is what guys talk about when [ladies are] not around.” He was only engaging in male banter with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. No women were actually raped by his words!
But your words describe who you are.
In 1993, Ivana Trump testified during a marital deposition that Trump had raped her. She recently denied that this allegation was true, but the murky past still remains. In the early 1990s, Trump repeatedly sexually harassed Jill Harth, whose boyfriend at the time was engaged in business with the mogul. Most dramatically– and underpublicized– in September of this year, a woman accused Trump of raping her in 1994 when she was thirteen years old. In Trump’s case, then, it is clear that his words are not far off from his actual behavior. He could be likened to a catcaller who makes disparaging remarks about a woman’s body, and then chases her down and physically acts on his words. It sounds dramatic, but Trump is just that.
But what about people who engage in this kind of dialogue without partaking in this behavior? Not all men rape. Only a small percentage of people are serial rapists. And yet I hear degrading language used both against and to describe women every day (not even including the language that directly references rape, as alluded to above). Take the example of street harassment. Every time someone is catcalled, it becomes just a little more acceptable for others to do the same. And while relatively few catcallers will chase their target down, the normalization of this act of catcalling only opens the door for those who would do so. Adding to the great corpus of negative language against women, against any marginalized, victimized, or demonized group, only adds to the problem.
There is a certain pressure for men to contribute to this rape culture– a pressure to be hypermasculine. We live in a society where conventional masculinity has the potential to become synonymous with disrespect for a woman’s autonomy, a society where men often reaffirm their maleness by putting people of other genders down. Just look at this one conversation between Trump and Bush (which seems to encompass all that is wrong with our society). Bush merely laughed along, encouraging Trump to continue. Perhaps, deep down, he was uncomfortable with what Trump was saying. But, even if he was, he would have been scorned for standing up to or speaking out against the television personality. It would have been abnormal for him to go out of his way to defend the women Trump so unabashedly and brazenly objectified.
In 2013, four Vanderbilt football players raped an unconscious girl in a hotel room. The players videotaped it, sending it to their friends. If that is not a normalization of rape culture, what is? All involved knew that what they had done was wrong. Even though they felt as though they had the right to display their manhood in such horrific ways, they went out of their way to delete the evidence when they realized it could have repercussions. One of the perpetrators, Brian Vanderburg, even flew cross-country to California to destroy the phones of his friends who had received the incriminating videos. Perhaps most disgustingly, there were others involved: men who helped move the woman’s body, men who saw the woman “lying facedown on the floor,” but did not call police, and a fellow football player who was indicted as an “accessory” to the crime after helping delete evidence and even attend a meeting to discuss covering up the events.
The silent encouragement of denigrating language leads to the silent acceptance of sexual assault. The more we normalize hate speech, the more we normalize hate crimes.
Donald Trump’s words against women are dangerous precisely because he is making it more acceptable for others to speak the way he does. As the presidential nominee of a major party, he has revealed a seedy, sexist underbelly of the American population. I have been to one of his rallies. I have seen the passionate response he evokes from a largely white, heterosexual male base. Imagine what he could do as president. The more acceptable crude, lewd, and abhorrent language against marginalized groups becomes, the more acceptable violence against them becomes.
A vote for Donald Trump is a vote against women, a vote against the LGBTQIA community, and a vote against the trans and gender-nonconforming population, all of whom are the most likely victims of sexual violence. One thing a vote for Trump will not go against? The perpetuation of our rape culture.
(Overhead photo source: CNN)