We're Now Talking About Sexual Assault -- & Oddly Enough, We Have Trump to Thank

Students protesting sexual assaultMillions of women are riding a wave of outrage crashing across social media -- one that demands people to look at, and deal with, pervasive sexual harassment and assault and the culture of "locker room talk" that makes it possible. It's all being built on the shoulders of women with the courage to speak out and say enough is finally enough. When one woman speaks out, it makes it easier for others. And when one man is arrogant enough to reference rape culture with such nonchalance, it ignites a visceral reaction in any woman who has ever been bullied in that way by a man. No, Donald Trump did not create this movement. But he certainly became its mascot.


Trump and his blatant description of assault have just been the final straw -- equal parts wake-up call and trigger warning -- for so many women, so many survivors, so many people who are tired of just sweeping it under the rug.

But the wave of outrage has been swelling for the past few years through stories that have gone viral and by the power of social media to spread these experiences and involve others in the conversation.

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There was a palpable uptick in this conversation when, in 2014, Emma Sulkowicz began carrying around the dorm room mattress she says she was sexually assaulted on as a form of performance protest against a college culture at Columbia University that she says protected her attacker. The result was a spontaneous outpouring of support. People showed up to help her carry the mattress across campus, and even to graduation, so she wouldn't have to do it alone.

Her bravery to tell her story inspired people everywhere to take to social media and advocate for sexual assault survivors on college campuses using the hashtag #CarryThatWeight -- the title of her project, which also happened to be her senior thesis.

Then there was the Brock Turner rape case and the stunning statement from the survivor in response to the athlete's insultingly lenient sentence that dripped with white male privilege. He ended up serving just half of his six-month sentence. Again, it was something millions of women had seen -- and experienced -- before. And it inspired them to speak out against it.

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Then the Trump Access Hollywood tape from 2005 emerged, and There. It. Was: This was an actual recording of a man bragging about being able to do whatever he pleased to women -- "just start kissing them," "grab them by the p**sy" -- because of his position of privilege and influence. It was stunning and horrifying and caused an immediate guttural reaction.

In that very moment, Trump represented for millions of women every boss who harassed them, every dirty old man who grabbed them, and every man in a position to stop it who did nothing. It was the final insult.

Trump denies that these words ever turned into actions. He has also vehemently denied accusations of sexual assault and harassment from all of his accusers who also came forward with stories, some of which echoed words Trump used during his "locker room talk" with Billy Bush. His denials include explanations ranging from the women not meeting his standards of attractiveness to their being interested only in his money or revenge.

But women across America aren't buying it. And according to the Washington Post, two-thirds of likely voters think Trump "has probably" made unwanted advances against women.

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But what Trump does not understand is that it was his words in that tape that perhaps not only triggered his accusers to come forward -- they triggered women everywhere, almost immediately, to feel the weight of those words. Women began tapping out social media messages to share their own stories in a stunning show of solidarity against this kind of talk. By revealing their own awful tales, women are sending the message that we've all had to endure too much for too long. Because in these women, it's easy to see ourselves -- and even worse, our girls.

Women want to make the point that they've seen this "locker-room-talk-and-Tic-Tacs" routine plenty of times before. Not just a few here and there -- tens of thousands of women. They're gathering around hashtags like #NotOkay and #ImASurvivor that are functioning as real-time support groups. There's a steady offering up of humiliating, terrifying experiences and an equally reliable reply from the masses of "I believe you" and "I'm so sorry this happened to you." And most importantly, "It was wrong." 

For women, these stories hit much harder than locker room talk.

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Just after the Access Hollywood tapes were revealed, MTV's Ana Marie Cox was on MSNBC's The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell, visibly upset, explaining why this was going to resonate with so many women. The words just kind of tumbled out of her:

Something like that happened to me when I was young and I couldn't do anything about it. That is what happens to women .... There are women that want to show that's not possible. There are women that want to say, no it doesn't allow you to do anything, and I'm going to show you by voting against you.

Here's the video:

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Around the same time, author Kelly Oxford sent out this tweet that lit Twitter on fire. According to the Washington Post, what followed her post was 14 straight hours of more than a million women tweeting their own stories.

Trump's tapes, and the attacks he's led on his accusers, have triggered a collective trauma in women. In Trump, who is a cartoon caricature of a sexist pig, we're able to see in stark terms the attitudes and feelings about women that make sexual abuse and assault so easy for men to get away with, and so difficult for women to push back against.

I've got my own stories. Like the time in my 20s when a strange man walked up to me while I was standing in a circle of male colleagues at a cocktail party to ask, "Can I lick your p***y?" It was scary and embarrassing. So yeah, when I heard Trump use that exact same word on that bus, it brought me right back to that awful moment. I'd seen that exact look before. And I am not alone.

According to RAINN, a sexual assault survivor nonprofit, its National Sex Assault Hotline traffic in the weekend following Trump's comments (and especially during his second presidential, presidential debate with Hillary Clinton) spiked by 33 percent.

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Of course, Trump and his defenders also started attacking the accusers based on the "timing" of the revelations.

"Why wasn't it part of the story that appeared 20 or 12 years ago? Why wasn't it part of the story?" Trump asked as an attempt at a denial that he had groped and kissed his accusers. "I was one of the biggest stars on television with The Apprentice, and I would have been one of the biggest stories of the year."

Vox's Elizabeth Plank started the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport so women could explain, in their own words, why they didn't necessarily report their abusers at the time it happened. There is also the idea that 20 or 12 years ago, these women, all women, would not have found solidarity in each other's stories. Sure, stories may have been reported in the media, but today we have an online community that provides a support group. Today survivors can speak on their own terms, individually, collectively, when, where, how, and how much. 

And they have. But the raw explanations from women across Twitter about being shamed and not believed and retaliated against almost directly described what was happening to the women coming forward with accusations from years ago. Jessica Leeds had her personal information tweeted by news host Lou Dobbs, and her appearance has been attacked by Trump himself at his rallies. Mindy McGillivray feels such "backlash" from Trump supporters that she's leaving the country with her family. And former People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff, who accused Trump of kissing her during an interview, got calls of "lock her up" at a Trump rally.

It's frightening.

Then there was the final, most powerful rebuke of Trump's sexism from First Lady Michelle Obama, who used a speech that history will remember to let everyone know, in no uncertain terms, that his behavior "is not normal" and is "intolerable." And in her own way, by uniting all women in a common experience, she told her own stories of men who "stand a little too close" and "stare a little too long." Yes, even Michelle Obama was shaken to her core by the powerless feeling caused by words like the ones Trump used.

But she turned it into a powerful cry for women to fight back. And it's time for all of us to do the same.

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So in a weird way, we owe Trump a debt of gratitude.

His vulgar words caught on tape might not have started the movement, but they made it a conversation that involved everyone, not only on social media, but at the dinner table, around office lunch rooms, in school locker rooms. Now we all know. Women know it's happening to all of us, so we don't need to feel ashamed. And men now know this is a real thing we endure and they need to do their part to stop it.

And finally, for now and forever, when someone is accused of engaging in "locker room talk," we'll all know exactly what that means -- and just how unacceptable it really is.

We have Trump to thank for that, too.


If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, you can find help and support at RAINN.org, the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1 800 656 HOPE (4673), or Safe Horizon Crime Victims Hotline 1 866 689 HELP (4357).


Image via Sergei Bachlakov/Shutterstock 

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