This week Donald Trump dismissed accusations that he’d sexually assaulted People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff, telling a crowd at a rally that the alleged assault couldn’t have happened because, well, “look at her.”
Trump isn’t the first person to suggest that a woman’s appearance might impact her chances of being the victim of sexual assault. Not only is “you’re too ugly to rape” an insult trolls like to hurl at women online, but anti-rape advocates have dedicated their lives to educating the public that rape is not, in fact, about an attacker’s unbridled desire for their victim; it’s about his or her desire for power. It should go without saying that sexual desire isn’t a necessary component of sexual assault, but it’s something many people still believe.
It should come as no surprise that Trump relied on a nasty myth about sexual assault to deny wrongdoing—this many months into his campaign, it’s pretty clear he has no problem presenting lies as truths. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the full weight of what he said, because buried in the idea that an unattractive woman is inherently unrapeable is a second, equally harmful notion about sexual assault—that any woman who gets raped, or street harassed, or otherwise subjected to unwanted sexual attention must, by extension, be sexually desirable, and that all these things are, at their heart, “compliments.”
As much as I’d love to dismiss this reasoning as one more awful, misogynist idea put forth by the Republican presidential nominee, this isn’t a uniquely Trumpian assertion. Even The New York Times—an outlet that broke the story of two Trump accusers, and has been keeping tabs on the many women who’ve come forward about the presidential nominee’s seeming inability to keep his hands (and mouth) to himself—recently ran an op-ed by a disabled woman who professed to be jealous of the street harassment endured by her able-bodied friends. “I still would much rather have a man make an inappropriate sexual comment than be referred to in the third person or have someone express surprise over the fact that I have a career,” she writes, suggesting that sexual harassment is a lesser offense than the humiliations faced by the disabled.
There’s a phrase that sums up this casual dismissal of unwanted sexual attention: “Pretty girl problems.” “Pretty girl problems” suggests that, as upsetting as harassment might be, a lack of harassment is somehow worse; that the “compliment” of knowing a man is sexually interested in you somehow mitigates the fact that you aren’t interested in him, that his attentions are unwanted, that you don’t want to be touched.
Of course, “pretty girl problems” as a concept is extremely problematic. Beyond the way it diminishes sexually violence, the phrase buys into the idea that a woman’s worth is directly connected to her appearance. It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or funny or successful or even happy—if you’re pretty (and, more explicitly, if men are sexually interested in you), that’s all you need to get by.
It also suggests that male attention—even of the unwanted variety—is always inherently a positive. That if a man is just trying to be friendly, it shouldn’t matter if a woman has somewhere she needs to be or isn’t in the mood to strike up a conversation—she should politely tolerate his attentions. Attractive women—or any women to whom individual men find themselves attracted—are transformed into a public commodity, taught to see expressing boundaries and bodily autonomy as some rude rejection of praise.
It’s not hard to understand why these ideas are so damaging (though if you find that it is, Jessica Valenti wrote a book on the subject you might want to check out). But if there’s one silver lining to Trump’s disgusting words, it’s that they offer an opportunity to reinforce how misguided this myth is.
As much lip service is given to the idea that women are more than their bodies, most of us still buy into the idea that being pretty is how women win the game, and that the validation of one’s attractiveness is enough to erase all other problems. In the process, we flatten and reduce the complex experience of being a woman to one fleeting, mercurial factor—and we give men like Donald Trump far more power over the lives of women than they truly deserve.