I’m wary of reactions to Trump’s “Lewd Video,” but not for reasons you might think.
I’ll let it be known off the bat that I despise the guy and the gross things he says and does, but I fear that the huge backlash of liberals against this video may actually be quietly feeding the disease of rape culture while ostensibly fighting it.
When my sister texted me excitedly on Friday to check out the leaked video, assuring me there was no way women and evangelicals would continue to back Trump now, I was hopeful.
But when I saw the video, I was, frankly, unmoved by its degree of awfulness. Of course, it was gross, and yes, it is absolutely describing, condoning, and bragging about sexual assault. But it was nothing new to me. It didn’t shock me, and I didn’t think it would shock anyone else or cause Trump to lose supporters, especially given that this is not the first time he’s expressed disrespect for entire groups of people. In my experience, that kind of talk and action are painfully common. I didn’t realize – until I saw other people’s reactions to the video on social media – how much I had accepted that kind of talk from men like Trump (powerful men who otherwise demonstrate a lack of empathy and sense of entitlement, why not extended to women’s bodies?) as the norm.
People’s reactions shocked me far more than the things that that creep said in his videos. I read furious posts written by men on my Facebook feed, genuinely emotionally disturbed by Trump’s comments, on behalf of women and, of course, on behalf of men, rightfully noting that trivializing sexual assault language as “locker room talk” holds men to an insultingly low standard of decency. I saw news anchors and my favorite liberal comedy show hosts all describing Trump’s language as both serious and criminal. I read this article by Chris Kluwe of the NFL who, among other things, insisted that someone who said the things Trump says would be kicked out of any locker room. I actually cried when I read this one. I felt like experiences that I and many others have had our whole lives were finally being validated by a culture that previously dismissed our reality.
Could this be the start of a major shift in our culture? Could Donald Trump be the fever that we have to indulge in order to sweat it out – the remaining vestige of a toxic patriarchy, kicking and screaming so we can all see and face the repressed shadow self lurking in the brain of our country, before we mature and move on?
I hope so, and I think for many of us, hearing men and powerful public figures validate the existence of rape culture is a silver lining of sweet relief amidst the terrifying prospect of a Trump presidency. But for me, that relief is almost… too sweet.
Just as my heart lifted with all of this attention to and validation of the issue, it also sank. Yes, I have been groped in public by strangers, including being “grabbed by the pussy.” Yes, I’ve been sexually harassed, stalked, and violated, both by people I didn’t know and people I knew very well; Donald Trump described it in words, and the entitlement many men have felt over my body has been made clear to me in action. And sharing my experiences has opened my eyes to is just how many women (and people of all genders) have experienced the destructive effects of rape culture first hand: The current statistical estimate states that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime – if you include sexual harassment, groping, and account for that rape culture not only discourages women from coming forward but discourages them from validating their own experiences, I would argue the numbers come closer to 4 out of 5, if not more.
The problem is that some of the same people and organizations who are now expressing revulsion regarding Donald Trump’s comments and behavior towards women have been contributors to the very rape culture they use him to condemn. This ranges from comedians like Bill Maher’s gleeful snark about Trump in spite of his own regular microaggressive sexism and bigotry, to CNN’s disapproval of Trump’s behaviorcontrasting its notoriously sympathetic reactions to the convicted rapists in the Steubenville rape case verdict, to people on Facebook to whom I’m privy to ways in which they’ve personally (and likely obliviously) participated in the objectification and violation of women yet whom express utter outrage at Trump’s behavior. And my concern is that in condemning Donald Trump’s actions so vigorously, we are failing to recognize the Donald Trump in ourselves.
Trump may be ridiculous, but he’s also an easy target. We can comfortably project onto him all of our anger and indignation. We can throw up our hands in disbelief that our society has produced and lauded such a monster and brought him dangerously close to the highest office in the country, without examining the role we might have played in his success by actively or passively allowing rape culture to continue.
The lack of introspection and even hypocrisy is representative of a greater phenomenon: the ease with which we can call out unacceptable behavior in others when that behavior is extreme and obvious allows us to remain not only in ignorance but unaccountable for the ways in which that behavior is reflected in ourselves. This not only contributes to perpetuation of rape culture (and systemic racism), but it limits our potential for personal and societal growth.
I think we have to be careful not to let a caricature like Trump become a “foil” for us, in the literary sense – someone whose character allows us to see our own character in a new light, specifically one in which we all look like sensitive, reasonable, social justice angels in comparison.
So what can we do? For starters, we can be real with ourselves. Just because Trump’s racism is blatant, for example, doesn’t mean we’re not ALL influenced by the implicit racism of our dominant culture, subconsciously perpetuating it in insidious ways. And just because Trump is obviously an entitled, pervy, groping, alleged rapist, doesn’t mean we should let ourselves off the hook for our own contributions to a culture that objectifies women, that dehumanizes them for consumption. By definition, “rape culture” affects the implicit attitudes of all of us, even with the best of intentions. Let’s all look in the mirror, as individuals, and as a country and culture. Let’s look at the subliminal messages this culture has been sending itself about which people are superior and which should be silenced, in hopes that looking it in the face is a first step to change. Let’s think less in terms of categorizing “rapists” and “non-rapists” and more about how we can keep getting better at incorporating boundaries and enthusiastic consent into all of our sexual interactions, how we can learn to VALUE mutual enthusiasm over “conquering” people. Let’s practice the ways we can subvert the deeply ingrained idea that women are valued first on their appearance and appeal to men, and how that limits ALL of us. Let’s listen, with empathy, to other people’s experiences, without shutting them down when they threaten our self-concepts. Because regardless of the results of this election, we have the power to change our culture by starting with an open and honest conversation, but that conversation has to start with ourselves.
Written by Curious Apes contributor, Julie Or, whose work can also be found here.