Anyone that has been following the US presidential campaigns (and probably most people that haven’t) have heard about Donald Trump’s various alleged sexual assault allegations. In fact, some would argue sexism and the way women are regarded in business, politics and life has become a central theme of the race to the White House. Trump himself has called the allegations a distraction from the real issues, but in one of the few positive turns this year’s election discourse has taken, the issue of sexism, sexual assault and gender imbalance will not disappear. Judging by media output and social media interaction, the people have decided that this IS the core issue and a substantive one at that. He may not have intended it, but the best thing Donald Trump has done for women of the western world is to open a discussion about the way we are regarded and indeed the way we are treated.
Countless stories have been shared on social media of casual abuse in clubs, homes and at workplaces and what is abundantly clear is that it happens with an unpredicted frequency. Everyone has a story, or at least knows someone that does. ‘Groping’ is and has been accepted as simply part of life that women must put up with, muttering a few words under the breath and rolling their eyes as they shrug off unwanted advances and comments.
And yes, there are a great majority of men who would never behave in a way that would reduce a woman to an object meant for gratification, but those that do are pervasive and powerful enough that they have cultivated an environment in which sexism thrives and most of us barely recognise it. Now, with strength in numbers, more women are sharing stories. Their silence is broken.
With the nine allegations against Trump (and counting – not including the rape allegations that are currently in civil court) suddenly there is a new awareness of a struggle we didn’t know we were engaged in. One of the only things I can ever be grateful to Donald Trump for is that through his boorish, arrogant and possibly criminal past he has brought a realisation from the backs of our minds to the forefront of popular discussion. Rather than shrugging it off women (and men) are collectively understanding that all the little words and actions we once accepted as a fact of life result in one huge problem that becomes a central issue in every individual woman’s life.
Some will question the timing of the accusations, but most people seem to recognise that in a world where a man feels comfortable enough to say (while miked up and talking to a reporter) that he can assault women and get away with it because he’s rich and famous, its easy to see why they didn’t come forward at the time. He knows his victims have no power. He knows the first response will be, as it always is, a judgement about the accuser. Even when the man in question isn’t rich or famous its a monumental battle with huge implications to bring these assaults to light only to have it dismissed as ‘locker room talk’ or ‘just a joke’ or something we should be ‘flattered’ about. The pay off is virtually non existent. Its simply not worth it.
Three moments during the sorry saga of Donald Trump’s wondering little hands have surprised me. The first was the videotape itself. I rolled my eyes (and did a not so small vomit in my mouth) when Trump and Bush discussed Arianne Zucker. Like many other women I wasn’t shocked at their banter and I suspect if I was this issue wouldn’t be getting the attention it now is. But I felt uneasy, even disturbed when the two salivating incoherent neanderthals disembarked the bus and began talking to an unknowing Zucker. Knowing what she was walking into made my stomach turn, but worse, watching her interact with the men I saw a familiar pattern.
She played up to them. Even flirted. I recognised her light voice and doting physicality. She knew what was expected of her when she was asked to take Trump on a tour. She knew she would have to appease him. Immediately, she sought to make him and his needs the focus their interaction. We do it without realising how habitually conditioned we are. Breaking that conditioning will be the first step in attacking sexual assault. If men are made to view women as people and not as objects meant for their amusement there will be a change.
Second, Jessica Leeds in several interviews was reported as saying she released a photo of her as a young woman preemptively. She knew, without a doubt that Trump would instantly go on the attack. She had the foresight to understand that in particular, her appearance would be up for debate. She wanted to release a photo of herself at around the time she said Trump assaulted her to ward off criticisms designed to question why Trump would assault a woman of her age or her aesthetic value. And, sadly, she was right. He immediately went on the attack. Because, after all, she wasn’t worth more to him than the way she looks.
Finally, one of Trump’s other accusers appeared on on Anderson Cooper 360. Several salient points were made by this articulate woman. “Even the smallest assault is important” she said. “Assault in my mind meant something else. Hitting is assault. I was very unaware of mental abuse, manipulation, bullying. I mean, that is just straight up bullying.”
And this is what some men, and moreover our pervading cultural norms, fail to understand. Part of the misunderstanding seems to be the thinking that women might feel flattered by unwanted attention. While they may smile awkwardly or blush out of embarrassment, or even think of it as a compliment at the time, its not. It contributed to a cultural narrative that debases us, placing worth on us only as we are viewed relative to the men that see us. And over time it becomes acceptable to view women in this way, or to grope them in a club, in a social situation, even at work.
In fact, I would place a bet that more than half the women I know have at some point had a man’s hands on her in a way that has made her feel uncomfortable and unsafe. And yet, we continue to accept it. Some men exude a sense of entitlement in the way they talk about, speak to and behave with women. More importantly our overriding societal belief says that that is okay. We’re contributing to a narrative that we as women are less than. Because it’s acceptable to treat us with disrespect- physically, mentally, emotionally
As Anderson explains “It’s not part of my life. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not something I care about really. But it IS important. Just the fact that I to myself was brushing it off, that was the part that said, you know what? You really shouldn’t brush that off…Was I hurt? No. Has it traumatised my whole life? No. But, I let it slide. What’s the next thing you let slide? Somebody has to say it. Otherwise we’re just being quiet and letting it happen.”
I’m grateful to the women that came forward. I’m even grateful to men like Trump for making this an issue through their self entitled arrogance. My daughter and in fact my son will be better for it.