Oh, where to begin?
Women, power, and politics came crashing together this weekend. It was an appalling display. Gender has become a defining issue in the current presidential campaign, but not at all in the way I expected. Whether a woman can be President is off the radar. Instead we’re convulsing over admissions of sexual assault and the distinction between locker room banter and rape culture.
It matters, of course, because a person who regards women as primarily sexual objects will struggle with the basic tenets of human and civil rights upon which our country is founded. There are critical policy changes urgently needed to normalize men’s roles as caregivers and women’s roles as income earners. Income inequality, violence, poverty, and social division are all exacerbated by women’s continued lower status and lack of representation in positions of leadership. The US must leverage its female talent and women’s economic potential in order to maintain its position on the global stage and preserve our national security. The only way to do this is to render visible the enormous value of so-called “traditional women’s work”, i.e. care, and distribute it more equitably between men and women by fostering a cultural shift that changes attitudes, policies, and practices.
If the Chief Executive is ogling women’s body parts and grabbing women’s genitals, his concentration is bound to be distracted from the other ways we contribute to the collective well-being.
How did we get here?
There was a series of revelations about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s past acts of a sexual nature with women. (You’ve probably heard by now the tape of him and Billy Bush yukking it up on the Access Hollywood bus.) While the recording was certainly “lewd,” it’s more than that. This is not his typical de-humanizing and misogynistic riff on women. What is starkly evident is that his recounting of his actions describes sexual assault. (“I moved on her, actually… I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it… I did try and f@#k her… and I moved on her very heavily…I moved on her like a bitch.”) Charming.
But the tape isn’t the whole story Nick Kristof’s Friday column in the New York Times recounts a similar chapter of coerced sexual contact in Mr. Trump’s romantic career. His interview with shock jock Howard Stern also rates pretty high on the ick-factor, as he agrees that his daughter Ivanka is “a piece of ass.” This was 10 years ago, the NYT incident reported last Friday occurred 23 years ago, and the p$$$y grabbing audiotape was recorded 11 years ago. However, all of it is consistent with remarks Trump has made in recent months and weeks in the current campaign about women’s looks, attractiveness, weight, and so forth. It’s almost as if (!) he believes women’s only role is to serve men’s sexual desire.
Trump has made two official statements about the sexual assault admission tape and continued in the debate to describe it only as “locker room banter.” But many who heard it and/or about it have not been able to brush it off so lightly.
In response to a question tweeted by @KellyOxford about sexual assault, many thousands have described their experiences in 140 characters or less. “Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my “p**^y” and smiles at me, I’m 12.“ For at least 14 hours she received 50 replies per minute or more. I didn’t have the nerve to tweet mine, not a single one of them. (My daughter, still a teen, recently told me about hers.) Clearly the Twitterverse heard Trump’s “locker room banter” as something far more sinister – forcing women into sexual interactions they do not want.
Coercing women into sex is an abuse of power. When it is framed as “boys will be boys” behavior, it’s a red flag for rape culture. Marshall University’s Women’s Center defines it this way: “Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
Rape is the most costly of all crimes to its victims, with total estimated costs at $127 billion a year (excluding the cost of child sexual abuse). In 2008, researchers estimated that each rape cost approximately $151,423. Sexual abuse has a negative impact on children’s educational attainment, later job performance, and earnings. Sexual violence survivors experience reduced income in adulthood as a result of victimization in adolescence, with a lifetime income loss estimated at $241,600. Sexual abuse interferes with women’s ability to work. Fifty percent of sexual violence victims had to quit or were forced to leave their jobs in the year following their assaults due to the severity of their reactions. In 2008, violence and abuse constituted up to 37.5% of total health care costs, or up to $750 billion.
From the National Association to End Sexual Violence, (citations omitted)
Boys in men’s bodies boasting? Or dismissing sexual assault as normal male conduct in such a way that the degradation of women is encouraged? You’ll have to decide. But failing to acknowledge the human suffering and economic costs of sexual assault is – yet, another – policy failure women will bear most.
Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington