“What was she wearing?”
It’s a question that represents a way of thinking about sexual assault that has been made familiar by pop-culture (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), current events (Brock Turner), and lately, by a presidential campaign.
When asked to respond to Roger Ailes’ ouster from Fox News following a slew of sexual harassment allegations, Donald Trump defended the former CEO and accused the women making these allegations of being “ungrateful.” When asked how he would like his own daughter to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, Trump said he hoped she would “find another job.” Trump’s son Eric echoed his father’s sentiments a few days later by claiming that Ivanka “wouldn’t allow herself to be . . . subjected to it.”
Shortly after joining the campaign, Trump’s newly installed campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s controversial comment that rape would not exist if women were men’s physiological equals, made at a roundtable discussion in 2013, resurfaced in the news.
And then, during NBC’s presidential forum with Matt Lauer, Donald Trump stood by a 2013 tweet asserting that rape is the logical consequence of putting men and women together in the military.
A generous interpretation of these statements might cast them as old-fashioned or as an example of Trump’s political incorrectness. But the truth is that victim-blaming is rooted in a view of the world that has frightening implications not only for women, but for all vulnerable segments of society.
Victim-blaming is thought to be a manifestation of a phenomenon called the just world belief, sometimes called the just world fallacy: the notion that life is typically just and that people generally get what they deserve. Melvin J. Lerner, the social psychologist in whose work the idea is rooted, argued that this belief allows people to feel that the world is a safe place where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.
This perverse and rather naive logic allows bystanders to distance themselves from their own vulnerability. If bad things only happen to people who have done something to deserve their misfortune, we can protect ourselves by behaving differently.
The Trump campaign’s statements espouse a view of the world rooted in the just world belief, one in which individuals who are sexually victimized are culpable for their victimization. It's a disturbing thought that has an equally disturbing logical corollary whereby sexual harassment and assault is justifiable under certain circumstances.
Suggesting that Ivanka Trump wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to sexual harassment implies that sexually harassing a woman is acceptable if she is not taking defensive measures to prevent it. Attributing rape to disparities in the physiological strength of men and women or the presence of women in the military implies that rape is appropriate when the victim is weaker and proximate.
Last week’s Milk contributor wrote about how her personal beliefs and the experiences of others motivate her political advocacy. But even those who are not personally motivated to political action are personally affected by those who wield political power. Their words and decisions reverberate in the most private spaces in our lives. They affect our legal options and the narrative in which we place our experiences.
If our politicians believe that victims are culpable when they are sexually harassed or assaulted, they will appoint judges and sign bills into law that reflect that belief. This should be a deeply troubling prospect, because as it is, our legal system deals with sexual crimes in ways that often favor offenders and revictimize victims.
Consider the leniency shown to Brock Turner, who garnered pity and a lenient sentence from the judge even as the defense painted his victim as wanton and irresponsible. And sadly, Brock Turner’s victim represents the single digit percentage of rape cases that lead to any type of incarceration.
The victim-blaming statements from the Trump campaign suggest that a Trump administration will lack empathy not just for victims of sexual assault and harassment, but for marginalized and victimized groups of any kind. They are patently misogynistic, but also inextricable from a more general disregard for human rights.
In fact, the research that the concept of the just world belief is rooted in was inspired by an attempt to understand the atrocities of the Holocaust and the victim-blaming directed at individuals who suffer from mental illnesses. It also attempted to understand what allows authoritarian regimes to stay in power even as they cause suffering. The explanation offered by the just world belief is basically this: if people see the suffering of others as just, they are happy to subordinate themselves to the forces causing it.
We have already seen evidence of this when it comes to the Trump campaign. Though immigration experts have repeatedly warned that there is no humane way to quickly deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, the Trump campaign has, for the most part, towed a hard line on immigration, even suggesting the creation of a deportation task force. Not only have many Trump supporters rallied behind these statements, they balked when Trump briefly suggested a softer approach to immigration.
Trump’s statements about women have garnered limited attention, no doubt because even in 2016 women’s issues are often seen as “fringe” issues that might alienate a broader audience. But the connection between authoritarianism and victim-blaming should make any voter concerned about the possibility of a Trump administration.