Although I generally applaud the notion of a national conversation about rape and rape culture, the repeated coverage of the accusations against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and the responses he has given as well as those of his supporters, are deeply troubling. I fear they are reinforcing dangerous misconceptions about sexual assault, so am offering below five actual facts about sexual assault.
Fact One: Sexual assault is not about the victim’s looks. Rape is crime of opportunity and power, not sexual attraction. It’s not, as others have said, “a pretty girl problem.” Yet Donald Trump’s defense against the accusations made by Jessica Leeds, who alleged that he groped her on an airplane several decades ago, is that she “would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.” Such a statement implies that Leeds is “unrapeable,” a common but inaccurate and disgusting trope.
Fact Two: Sexual assault is not funny or trivial. Yet Donald Trump publicly made fun of Kristin Anderson, a woman who claims that he reached his hand up her skirt and touched her vagina while she sat next to him at a New York night club in the 1990s. In a speech Friday, he mockingly said “And then I went wah to somebody” as he simulated the gesture. His supporters laughed. His supporters seem to buy the defense that all his comments about grabbing women were just “locker room,” “bad boy,” or “gutter” talk, with some even suggesting it is not Trump that should be blamed but rather the person who recorded him saying those horrible things. Former presidential candidate Ben Carson also trivialized the accusations, noting that it is common for men to brag about their “conquests” and denouncing the entire conversation as unimportant compared to other issues facing the nation. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions claimed that the unwanted touching is not sexual assault, despite the fact that it does indeed meet the definition provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Fact Three: False reports of sexual assault are uncommon. Although it is impossible to determine right now the accuracy of the many allegations against Trump, the reality is that, according to the FBI and other sources, at most eight percent of rape allegations are false, with some studies finding the false report number as low as two percent. Trump has repeatedly suggested that the accusations are all part of a Clinton-media conspiracy to rig the election against him, an idea that bears no resemblance to reality. But it does harken up all kinds of rape myths: women levy false accusations for attention, money, or because they regret sexual activity. I do believe Trump has the right to defend himself in the media and in court, should that time come, but a simple denial rather than a conspiracy theory would be more palatable.
Fact Four: One of the strongest predictors of sexual assault is the way a man views and talks about women. Trump’s repeated derogatory comments about women (among them “piece of ass,” “pig,” and “bimbo);” the many allegations of harassment and even rape that have been made against him; his disgusting comments about the appearance of a 10-year-old girl (and other young girls) who he said he’d “be dating in 10 years;” and his own words describing how it’s OK if a man grabs a woman and kisses her without her consent, who even grabs her by her genitalia; are the type of beliefs and statements that are common among rapists.
Fact Five: That other high-profile men have faced similar accusations does not excuse your behavior, both that which is documented and that which is alleged. That Bill Clinton behaved poorly (at best) when he was in the White House has no connection to the accusations against Donald Trump. Shockingly, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert even alleged that Trump’s comments were only due to the fact that he was chums with Bill Clinton, and so of course they spoke similarly.
Given that fact-checkers have found that most of what comes out of Trump’s mouth is a distortion or flat-out lie, it should come as no surprise that he is peddling misconceptions about sexual assault. But we deserve better.