The XX Factor

In 2016, America Was Forced to Face the Reality of Sexual Assault

This is assault.

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When Republicans nominated a crude misogynist to oppose a candidate who looked like she might be the nation’s first female president, the 2016 election seemed like it would be, at least in part, a referendum on America’s entire record of discrimination and abuse against women.

The results of that referendum were clear: proud admissions of sexual assault, an inability to see women as anything but sex objects, and a penchant for sexual humiliation were not enough to keep the country’s least-qualified major party nominee in history out of the White House. For anyone who voted for Donald Trump, bald-faced racism and sexism were not the deal-breakers they should have been. Hatred of women was on the ballot in November, and it won.

But there is a thin, tarnished silver lining to the platform Trump gave to his misogynist worldview this year. As both the president-elect and his alleged victims described the uninvited sexual contact he regularly imposed upon women, mainstream observers were made to consider that the more minor violations they described—forced kisses, gropes, and grabs—belonged on the spectrum of sexual assault.

Though reports of Trump’s abuse have been around for years, the public conversation about his alleged crimes began in earnest in October 2016, when the Washington Post published a 2005 clip of Trump saying he grabs women “by the pussy” and “just start[s] kissing them” without waiting for consent. Once that video dropped, more than a dozen women came forward to allege that Trump had done exactly what he’d bragged about. A People writer wrote that Trump shoved her against a wall and pushed his tongue into her mouth during a reporting trip to his Florida home. Former Miss USA pageant participants said he’d purposely walk into their backstage dressing room while they were changing, ogling half-naked women and girls as young as 15. (Donald Trump has admitted that he’s done this.) Several women detailed similar accounts of Trump ambushing them with his hands on their breasts, butts, and genitals.

These incidents were not rapes. They were all-too-common sexual violations that are often brushed off by perpetrators, bystanders, and victims alike as misunderstandings or harmless, standard male behavior. Most women have experienced violations like these; not all of them have filed the memories away under “sexual assault.” Hearing the disturbing details of Trump’s alleged assaults and zooming out to see his pattern of exploitation caused some women to reevaluate abuses they’d previously written off. Trump reminded women of their abusers; long-buried recollections rose like zombies. Calls to sexual-assault hotlines surged.

It’s a traumatic experience to realize that what once seemed like petty instances of boys being boys were actual sexual assaults diminished by a rape culture that normalizes unwanted touch. But confronting the real harm of these violations—and the misogyny and entitlement to women’s bodies that undergirds them—is a necessary step toward establishing a safer world for women.

The Trump allegations also gave non-victims not already taking part in contemporary discussions of consent an occasion to expand the boundaries of what they consider sexual assault. It would take a hardy capacity for self-delusion to read the particulars of Trump’s gropes and grabs—“his fingers slid under her miniskirt, moved up her inner thigh, and touched her vagina through her underwear”—and still brush them off as misguided flirtation. I wrote a piece in Washington City Paper about being groped on the street in 2014, and I’ll never forget one comment an anonymous man left on the online version. He wrote that the article had made him rethink his definition of sexual assault. The detailed questions the D.C. police detective asked me about the incident, which I included in my article, did the trick, he wrote:

As a straight dude, I admit that my first thought was “Some drunk guy on 18th Street grabbed her ass. It’s boorish, it’s fucked-up, it’s illegal, but it’s not exactly ‘sexual assault.’” Wrong. I was wrong. It was the detective’s questions that really drove it home: “Which hand did the perpetrator use to touch me? Was it a pinch, a slap, or a rub? How many fingers were on me?” It makes my skin crawl.

Accounts of Trump’s alleged forced kisses—“within seconds, he was pushing me against the wall, and forcing his tongue down my throat. … I was stunned”—may have the same effect on mainstream Americans. Surprise kisses have long held an idealized position in American romance narratives. (See: “V-J Day in Times Square,” the famous photo of a World War II sailor grabbing a nurse he didn’t know for an uninvited kiss.) Conventional wisdom holds that a kiss doesn’t warrant affirmative consent; that it is the moment at which consent can be given or denied. Unwanted kisses may cause a moment of discomfort, the thinking goes, but since they don’t count as sexual activity, they don’t count on the spectrum of sexual assault.

Trump’s pattern of unwelcome kisses, an integral element of his alleged sexual exploitation, casts a shadow on that justification. America learned this year that Roger Ailes, too, made a habit of using his position of power to coerce women into kisses and worse. Megyn Kelly has said her former Fox News boss repeatedly tried to kiss her, and several women told the New York Times they’d endure his forced kisses and hugs to avoid upsetting him or losing their jobs. Ailes and Trump offer proof that an unwanted kiss isn’t harmless on its own—it’s a violation of the victim’s right to decide who touches her body and how. These cases also show that forced kisses usually go hand in hand with other, more serious sexual abuses. A man that ignores a woman’s bodily autonomy in one regard isn’t likely to respect it in another.

Of course, not everyone got on board as the mainstream definition of sexual assault expanded in 2016. When porn actress Jessica Drake accused Trump of grabbing her and kissing her without her consent, the president-elect pooh-poohed her protests. “She’s a porn star,” he said. “Oh, I’m sure she’s never been grabbed before.” Betsy McCaughey, the Trump surrogate who made the myth of Obamacare “death panels” happen in 2009, said the allegations against Trump were nothing but “man-shaming,” making a big deal out of stuff men do because they’re men. The Weekly Standard asked Sen. Jeff Sessions (Trump’s anti–civil rights, pro–racist language pick for attorney general) about what it would mean if Trump had actually grabbed women “by the pussy.” “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault,” Sessions said. “I think that’s a stretch.” Dave Chappelle said Trump’s boast that his fame let him exploit women with impunity (“when you’re a star, they let you do it”) meant that the women, too taken aback or intimidated by Trump’s power to protest, consented to his alleged abuse.

2016 was also the year a sexual-assault survivor’s letter to her assailant, Brock Turner, got more than 11 million views in four days, becoming BuzzFeed’s most-shared piece of content since the Dress. Turner’s violation, described in heart-wrenching detail by his victim, was easy to identify as criminal sexual assault, unlike some of the alleged wrongdoings of Trump and Ailes. But the survivor’s statement reached far beyond the circles of people who normally read and think about sexual assault, undoubtedly driving unsuspecting readers to contemplate why a firm verbal “no” shouldn’t be a perpetrator’s only signal to stop. The letter painted a powerful image of the horrors that ensue when unresponsive silence is taken as a “yes.”

The same rule should apply to unsolicited kisses and touches, though those are rarely prosecuted as crimes in court. If Trump’s and Ailes’ accusers taught the nation that a stolen kiss is its own kind of violence, Turner’s victim gave a follow-up lecture on the damage sexual assault leaves in its wake. This might have made for an effective one-two punch of a lesson for our country on the importance of affirmative consent. Instead, in 2016, America’s young women and men learned that survivors get dragged in the press and perpetrators get to be president.

Read more of Double X’s 2016 year-in-review coverage.