When Aurora De Lucia first saw the footage of Donald Trump bragging in 2005 that fame gave him license to grab women “by the pussy,” and watched the frenzied news cycle that followed, she thought about herself standing alone on a subway platform early last summer.
“That happened to me,” the 26-year-old editor told me over the phone. “A man came up behind me and shoved his hand deep into my skirt and grabbed me there. As he ran away, he looked back and smiled at me and he laughed.”
Jen, a 45-year-old mother who asked that I not use her real name, remembered being 10 years old and not having the words to describe what happened to her: “When we were kids, rape was something that happened in a dark alley.” The violent groping she experienced didn’t fit that description, so she spent years minimizing it.
By the end of Wednesday night, less than a week after The Washington Post published the Trump tapes, at least four women had said publicly that the Republican presidential nominee had aggressively groped or kissed them without their consent.
“We walked into that room alone, and Trump shut the door behind us,” Natasha Stoynoff, a reporter for People magazine who interviewed Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in 2005, wrote in a story that ran this week on the magazine’s website. “I turned around, and within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat.”
She told a colleague and her managing editor but otherwise tried to move on, she said. The story—a flattering profile of the newly married couple—still ran.
“It was so inappropriate,” another woman who came forward, Rachel Crooks, told The New York Times. In 2005, she was a receptionist at a real estate firm in Trump Tower who one day found herself standing next to the man whose name was on the building.
After a brief introduction, Crooks says Trump began kissing her—first on the cheeks and then directly on the mouth. “I was so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that,” she said.
After the Times story broke, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito tweeted that Trump’s “misogyny and sexual violence” had “re-opened wounds I’ve tried to heal.” (In another tweet, she wrote: “I am empowered. And strong.” She closed the message with a hashtag: #FearMe.)
Trump and his campaign, in response to the Post story, made a decision to appropriate the language and optics of supporting victims of sexual violence in order to chip away at Hillary Clinton’s campaign. What they didn’t anticipate, though they should have, was that Trump’s own history would be scrutinized under his new political mantra: Believe women.
So what we have now at the top of the Republican ticket is an alleged serial predator and gleeful misogynist who is instrumentalizing the pervasiveness of sexual violence as some kind of cheap political tool. And all over the country, victims of sexual assault have been watching it happen.
I talked to more than a dozen women and men in the hours before and after the most recent Trump sexual assault allegations surfaced, and almost every time we landed somewhere similar: This presidential election has seen the issue of sexual violence dragged onto the national stage in an unprecedented way, but to what end?
Last Sunday night before the second presidential debate, reportedly under the advisement of son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign CEO Steven Bannon, Trump appeared alongside three women who have said, consistently for many decades, that they were assaulted by Bill Clinton. The press conference also featured a woman whose rapist was defended in court by Hillary Clinton, who at the time was running a legal aid clinic in Arkansas and was appointed to the case.
“These four very courageous women have asked to be here, and it was our honor to help them,” an unusually somber Trump told a room of reporters over the frantic sounds of camera shutters. You’d be forgiven if you mistook the man who said that being a star meant he could do “anything” to women for a Take Back the Night activist.
Earlier that evening, Trump campaign manager KellyAnne Conway tweeted that “every woman” deserves to be believed. It was, much like the press conference itself, a transparent political maneuver against Hillary Clinton.
And while the Trump campaign cloaked itself in the language of feminism, his surrogates worked to minimize the impact of Trump’s hot mic comments. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said that groping a woman’s genitals doesn’t strike him as sexual assault. “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault. I think that’s a stretch,” he told The Weekly Standard. “I don’t know what he meant.”
More than just muddying the waters around consent and support, the cynical politicization of sexual violence is causing real harm, Claudia Garcia-Rojas, co-director of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, told me.
“When elected officials are given room to define for the public what they think, in their biased opinion and already established misogyny, is the definition of sexual assault,” she said, “they are not only providing misinformation but they are also framing survivors as liars.”
It’s gaslighting on a national scale, and having those comments loop through a repetitive news cycle, often without critical pushback or context, takes its toll, she added. “I was having a conversation with a friend over dinner about the fact that there are actual physical repercussions in watching the public debate and having to watch Trump, who is an abuser and reminds so many survivors of their own experiences,” she said.
Survivors of sexual assault, who are overwhelmingly women, are already forced to navigate a culture that condones violence and blames victims. Trump himself, long before he declared his presidential candidacy, offered a staggeringly textbook example of this kind of rape apologia.
In 1992, Trump defended Mike Tyson after the then-25-year-old boxer was convicted of raping an 18-year-old woman. The case wasn’t clear-cut, he said, because Tyson’s victim had gone to the hotel room “at her own will.”
“You have a young woman that was in his hotel room late in the evening at her own will,” Trump told NBC Nightly News in 1992. (BuzzFeed News obtained the video package back in April.) “You have a young woman seen dancing for the beauty contest—dancing with a big smile on her face, looked happy as can be.”
He concluded: “It’s my opinion that to a large extent, Mike Tyson was railroaded in this case.”
Trump’s defense of Tyson is consistent with what we’ve already heard from him on sexual violence, but it was also mercenary: Tyson boxed at his casinos. A jail sentence for one of the most famous fighters in the country would have cut into his profits.
But having those dynamics play out to this extent in a presidential campaign has been a new level of disorienting, according to many of the people I spoke to.
“It has been so demoralizing and terrifying to think that the work that so many of us are doing day in and day out can be almost co-opted by someone so irrefutably violent,” Caitlin Quinn, a communications coordinator for Verity, a rape crisis center in a California suburb, told me. “Survivors that have contacted us feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of coverage this has been getting and they don’t know who to talk to about it all.”
Both Quinn and Garcia-Rojas of the Chicago Taskforce agreed that there was some nuanced and responsible coverage of these issues—not to mention the investigative reporting of Trump’s own words that has helped elevate the voices of the women who say he assaulted them. But when violence against women gets the 24-hour television news cycle treatment, there’s not a lot of room for, or interest in, nuance.
What you have instead are split screens of Trump surrogates and television hosts having exchanges like this:
This election has revealed a lot by making the racist subtext of decades of American politics actual text. It has also exposed, through countless hours of related media appearances from lawmakers and Trump campaign surrogates, just how far certain public officials will go to defend racism, xenophobia, and misogyny.
But this mic-them-up-and-let-them-loose style of coverage is often exploitative and trivializing, lacking any kind of critical rebuttal from an actual expert on sexual violence about what it means for a high-profile evangelical Christian to say it’s OK for Donald Trump to have multiple sexual assault allegations leveled against him because “we’re not electing a pastor.”
Even supportive responses, like the viral hashtag #notokay, can feel like part of the same triggering frenzy.
“I felt like I already knew how rampant sexual assault is, and I think that’s the function it was meant to play—educating people that this isn’t just an isolated incident,” Emily, a 28-year-old New Yorker who asked that I not use her real name, said of the hashtag that writer Kelly Oxford started as a response to the Trump tapes. “But who are those people? Is it men? Is it other victims? If some person feels like it helps them heal, then who am I to say that it’s not OK. But I definitely remember thinking, Where does this lead?”
Emily’s fatigue is understandable. We’ve been here before. There have been other hashtags around the handling of rape and sexual assault in the NFL and on college campuses and in our military. It’s like an infinite loop of consciousness-raising that never seems to reach its intended audience: men who assault and degrade women, and the men who watch passively while it happens around them.
Or its other, 2016-specific audience: a country that would elevate a man who could make small talk about non-consensual pussy-grabbing to the top of a major party ticket.
“I want to say ‘Oh my god a presidential candidate—this is crazy, this is a landmark,'” Emily said. “But then you look at Bill Clinton, and clearly it’s not. I just think in a weird way we’re lucky that Trump is so unsophisticated and unsubtle whereas most abusers are way more under the surface.”
In response to The New York Times report on the two women who say Donald Trump groped them and kissed them without their consent—along with the report from People and the Palm Beach Post detailing separate allegations of sexual misconduct—the campaign issued a response that once again borrowed the language of victim support:
To reach back decades in an attempt to smear Mr. Trump trivializes sexual assault, and it sets a new low for where the media is willing to go in its efforts to determine this election.
Then he announced a lawsuit. Then he dispatched his surrogates to accuse the women of lying. A day later, he held a massive rally in Florida where he suggested that one of the women who made the allegation wasn’t attractive enough for him to assault her. Eventually, he launched an all-out smear campaign accusing the women of lying himself.
I would say that you can’t do both and get away with it, but you can.
Trump may very well lose the election next month. Recent polling shows his numbers, particularly among women, have dropped significantly since the footage of his remarks went up. But the familiar story of a powerful man at the top of a powerful institution, who sees victims of sexual assault as collateral in a long political game, predated him. And it will most certainly outlast him.