At the second presidential debate Anderson Cooper asked Donald Trump to respond to the release of graphic comments Trump made on an Access Hollywood bus describing how his celebrity gave him license to sexually assault women. Trump admitted that the tape embarrassed him, but he defended himself by saying:
“It’s just words.”
If words do not matter, perhaps the last debate should be replaced with a dance-off or a hot dog eating contest.
But words do matter. None more so than the words of our leaders. It is the reason we pit political candidates against each other in the rhetorical battle of debate.
Our words reflect our values. And as Kelly Oxford and the countless women sharing their stories of being sexually assaulted under the #NotOkay hashtag have pointed out, Trump’s so called ‘locker room talk’ is reflective of values that facilitate the culture of rape in which sexual assault is normalized and minimized.
The ‘locker room talk’ defense is only slightly more problematic than the perfunctory rebukes of Republicans who condemn Trump’s words but continue to support his candidacy. The former dismisses the significance of sexism in speech, the latter dismisses the significance of sexism in a person. And though Trump has faced significant backlash for his choice of words, the fact that so many prominent Republicans, the Republican National Committee, and Republican voters continue to support his candidacy, despite those words, makes it indisputable that sexism is still an accepted part of mainstream culture.
Bragging about sexually assaulting a woman is as much a product of that sexism as the occurrence of actual sexual assault, which is why Trump’s words have struck a chord with survivors.
Trump’s words struck a chord with me as well. I graduated from high school in 2005, the same year Trump made the comments that would one day become the biggest scandal of his candidacy. Out of the women I grew up with in a bible belt military town in middle Georgia, I know only a few who have never experienced an uninvited sexual touch. Those that did often shared these experiences years after the fact, when something in the news prompted re-evaluation of incidents buried deep in memory or stirred the courage to reveal trauma carried alone for years.
Shame, guilt, and confusion not only kept my friends silent, it protected the boys and men who violated them. Although we are all millennials, concepts like slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and rape culture were not yet part of the cultural vocabulary we had available to understand sexuality as high schoolers in the early 2000’s. The words we did have available to us were similar in sentiment to the brand of toxic machismo displayed by Trump in his comments and his defense of those comments.
We learned that the term ‘pussy’ refers to a type of male that other males don’t respect, and then figured out that it was also a term for our genitalia. And as if that term did not make us uncomfortable enough, Dane Cook, one of that era’s most popular comedians, compared a woman’s vagina to a box of cow tongues in his stand up. We almost never spoke about the mysteries of our awakening bodies amongst ourselves, certainly not in the way boys did. It was an unspoken but accepted fact that mastrubation was something only they could admit to. Our vaginas were like box springs: functional, a little ugly, meant to be hidden, and peripheral as a source of pleasure.
We attended public schools that taught us little or nothing about safe sex and consent. (Georgia law still mandates that sex education in public schools emphasize abstinence until marriage.) We went to churches that told us that as females we carried the burden of moderating the sexual desires of our male peers; that our short shorts and bare shoulders were leading them into temptation. Many among us wore ‘promise rings’, which symbolized a girl’s commitment to remaining a virgin until marriage.
When females in our peer group became sexually active, they were often derided as sluts unless that activity took place within a long term monogamous relationship. Males in our peer group had almost the opposite problem: the path to social status was paved with sexual conquest, with no room for emotional quibbling. In many ways, we were taught to view sex as an adversarial pursuit. Boys on offense, girls on defense. If sex happened, it was because a girl had failed to hold the line. If a boy failed to get sex, he was, of course, a ‘pussy’. Non cis-gender and non-hetero teenagers were generally not given a place in this paradigm at all.
Trump’s comments, and indeed his entire outlook on women, is steeped in this conflict based approach to sex that feeds both toxic masculinity and rape culture. When sex is viewed as the measure of masculinity and women are viewed as sexual gatekeepers, women become obstacles between a man and his manhood. This not only encourages a culture of sexual assault, it justifies it.
When Trump talked about grabbing a woman’s ‘pussy’, he was really reaching for his masculinity. And while Trump defends his comments as ‘just words’, to millions of young Americans they will reinforce a view of sexuality that pits girls against boys in a battle that no one ever wins.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at email@example.com.