Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been flagrantly marked by bigoted invectives and allegations of sexual assault. Despite moral outrage mounting against him from liberals and conservatives alike, the defensive vanguard of the Republican Party has held firm before their candidate. That is, until Friday, when The Washington Post exposed a 2005 video of Trump describing his history of sexual predation to Billy Bush.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he boasted. “You can do anything … Grab them by the p—y.” In the past few days, this video has blazed through social media, becoming the single most talked-about story of the entire election. The appalling crassness of Trump’s comments galvanized high-profile Republicans to denounce the nominee en masse.
Trump hasn’t exactly been subtle about his disrespect toward women. Multiple news media outlets have long used different iterations of the same euphemism to refer to it: Trump’s “misogyny problem,” his “trouble with women,” his “woman problem.” During Sunday night’s presidential debate, Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 (perhaps somewhat ineffectively) reeled off a list of his abuses:
“We have seen him insult women, rate women on their appearance … embarrass women on TV and Twitter.”
So why now? Why has this video been the turning point for so many Republican leaders, after an entire campaign rife with degrading actions and words toward women?
It seems that hearing the explicit, sickening confession from Trump’s own mouth sparked an unambiguous refusal to tolerate sexual entitlement. Republican leaders seemed to finally recognize how inappropriate it would be for our nation’s president to exhibit — and worse, normalize — sexual degeneracy. Perhaps they saw the imminent doom of conservative family values in the Republican nominee’s toxic masculinity. Perhaps they realized that Trump’s inability to acknowledge the gravity of his misdeeds compromises his fitness for the presidency.
In the wake of the video release, Trump tried to gaslight his national audience by externalizing his misogyny. He attempted to dismiss his behavior as regular “locker room talk” — an attitude as demeaning to men as it is to women — while paradoxically claiming that it “doesn’t represent who [he] is.” In attempting to evade judgment, Trump’s statements normalized sexual harassment as an essential but non-defining part of male character. It is something that every man does and can even brag about, but which no man can be held accountable for.
Trump’s boasts exemplify a phenomenon identified by David Lisak, an acclaimed clinical psychologist specializing in sexual assault. In a 20-year-long landmark study published in 2002, Lisak surveyed over 2,000 college-aged men in Boston and interviewed students who, like Trump, openly admitted to sexually coercing and assaulting women. Although the situations they narrated were essentially confessions of rape, the men felt comfortable with — even proud of — their actions because they did not conceive of them as such. These were, instead, stories of sexual conquest. In their minds, barring violent “stranger rape,” casual sexual harassment was an utterly innocuous and expected dynamic between a man and a woman.
This dangerous distortion of rape constitutes a chronic obstacle in improving our treatment of women. However, the recent wave of Republican opprobrium directed at Trump might represent a step forward in dissolving the pernicious normalization of sexual assault culture. That said, indifference toward this attitude persists among both conservative men and women who remain Trump supporters, claiming that he is simply speaking candidly about behavior that most men exhibit.
Meanwhile, at such a defining moment for public attitudes toward sexual assault, some on the left selectively ignore the sexual abuses of Bill Clinton LAW ’73, revealing an unacceptable hypocrisy. Some also uncritically consume music and media celebrating the degradation and hypersexualization of women. These blind spots on both the left and the right serve as a bellwether of how inured to sexual predation our society is, even as it appears receptive of feminist concerns.
Clearly, “locker room talk” is no longer reserved for sanctified, hypermasculine spaces; on Sunday night, we saw it on the floor of the presidential debate. Awareness of this issue has expanded into both places that politicize it and those that normalize it. In the mainstream, a consensus is emerging: We can and must judge the sexual ethos of our leaders if there is to be any lasting progress on our sexual mores. If we can recognize misogyny in Trump, it is our responsibility to recognize it wherever it lies — particularly on grounds that haven’t been neatly pre-marked by political labels.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .