I am a sexual assault survivor.
Those are words I’ve never typed out before. And they are certainly not the words I thought I’d ever open a political piece with. Yet in this election cycle, those words, that very personal disclosure, is something I feel like I have to make.
Before Election 2016 really kicked into high gear, I felt like our country was finally moving in the direction of having a serious, sober conversation about sexual assault. Documentaries like “The Hunting Ground” that focused on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s relentless campaign to pass legislation focused on sexual assault in the military, public outrage over light sentencing of convicted rapists, and even pop culture figure like Lady Gaga releasing songs about surviving sexual assault like “Til it Happens to You”… There seemed to at least be a movement to begin to have the hard conversations about the prevalence and severity of sexual assault in our country.
Then Donald J. Trump rode his golden escalator down into the 2016 presidential campaign and everything changed. From the very beginning, it was clear that Trump’s attitude about how his personal power or wealth related to his treatment of women and their bodies was shockingly demeaning and abusive. Yet when the now infamous “Access Hollywood” tape where Trump bragged about sexual assault came to light, something darker also reared its head in politics and the media. All the progress we had made as a country when it came to talking about and recognizing sexual assault not only came to a grinding halt, but was shoved backwards into the dark ages.
From the very start of the political “spin” after the tape, I knew something dangerous was happening. The immediate downplaying of a man bragging about how his power and wealth allowed him to freely violate women’s bodies without consequence chilled me to my core. I, and many other survivors of sexual assault, were bombarded not only with the tape of a man bragging about what many of us had lived through, but then listened to people excusing it away as nothing but “locker room talk” or “just how men speak.” Years of work to bring the seriousness of sexual assault were being washed away before our very eyes.
The erosion of these advances continued as women came forward to talk about their experiences of sexual misconduct and assault at the hands of Trump. I watched as the man accused of repugnant and violating acts used his platform to not only attack his accusers, but denigrate them as too unattractive to molest or make joking sounds and gestures of assault before cheering crowds.
Even then, I hoped that maybe we could turn this conversation around. Maybe we could use this moment to refocus on the pervasive problem of sexual assault within this country since we were watching it play out before our eyes. Instead, the opposite happened. The “locker room talk” spin of bragging about sexual assault became an accepted and mostly unchallenged talking point. Then, as it often does, the media began the false equivalency game, using a short hand of “controversies” to compare Trump’s sexual assault talk and actions with things like Wikileaks dumps or emails. The Trump campaign then trotted out the political pivot line of saying we needed to stop focusing on the “tabloid” stuff and focus on “real” issues facing Americans. And the media accepted and even parroted that line: “Americans want to talk about real issues facing them.”
The chilling takeaway? Sexual assault wasn’t a real issue. Let’s talk about something else. And that’s exactly what happened. Instead of leaning in to what the conversation about sexual assault could have been, the media moved on to the next shiny “controversy” and “real” issues in the campaigns.
Let’s be very clear, there is nothing more real than a person thinking his power, position, wealth, or influence gives him the right to violate another person. There is nothing more real than sexual assault. It is a very real issue facing hundreds of thousands of people, women and men, in this country. The terrifying statistic from RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is that every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted. For example, one in 5 women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. 18,900 members of the military reported unwanted sexual contact, with many more men and women not reporting. The numbers are staggering and horrifying. And these numbers are very real people, with very real loved ones, all affected by the pervasive problem of sexual assault.
Yet that conversation of a VERY real problem facing hundreds of thousands of Americans never happened. We all allowed “locker room talk” to push aside the conversation about workplace sexual misconduct and assault, which is what actually happened in the Access Hollywood video. Trump and Billy Bush weren’t in a locker room or having a private conversation. They were at a place of business (the set of a show) surrounded by sound people, bus drivers, camera people, the actress they were commenting on, and Bush himself who was at his place of work. But we allowed the talking point to stand. We watched as the media simply went with the pivot to “real issues” and parroted how both candidates had “controversies.” We all moved on and missed the opportunity to talk about what sexual assault is, what sexual misconduct means, the role power dynamics play in assault, women’s bodies and personal space being regularly invaded by men who kiss or hug or touch them, or many other issues that impact so many people. We all moved on instead of talking about the very real issue of a man who reveled in his power and influence- and who wielded it as almost a weapon against anyone who challenged him or who he felt was beneath him.
This has a lasting and dangerous effect on our country. Standing by as women who are victims of sexual assault are publicly denigrated by a powerful man reinforces the stigma of talking about assault. Watching a man joke about sexual assault or watching surrogates for him downplay it provides a destructive example for young men who feel they have some power, whether it be on the college sports team and frat house or someone higher in a military chain of command. It tells them this behavior is normal and okay. Moving on to talk about so-called “real” political issues tells survivors they aren’t important or that their violation simply isn’t important. Watching all this happen triggers survivors’ struggles and PTSD, making many feel re-victimized.
I’d like to say that we are better than this as a country. I’d like to say I see hope for a better push to talk about the very real and serious issue of sexual assault. But we have faced that challenge this election cycle and failed as a country. But now, like far too many in this country, I am a sexual assault survivor just trying to survive this election cycle.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.