Of all the sound and fury of the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s crowing of nonconsensual sexual advances on women still reverberates, a particularly outrageous comment from a man whose campaign was built on outrageous comments.
In a leaked 2005 hot mic tape from Access Hollywood, Trump bragged that “when you’re a star they let you do it… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
It was a cultural and political flashpoint that thrust sexual assault into the center of the presidential election—something that resonated painfully with victims of sex crimes.
But it also capped off a watershed year for public debate about sexual assault, from the ongoing trial against Bill Cosby to the Brock Turner rape case and Roger Ailes’s ouster from Fox News, after being accused of serial sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, among others.
Rolling Stone also lost the first of its legal cases relating to its now-discredited story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia.
Public sympathy has been shifting toward survivors in recent years, particularly on college campuses, with alleged victims like Emma Sulkowicz praised by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) for raising awareness around sexual assault—so much so that she was invited to the 2015 State of the Union address.
Between the overwhelming public support for Turner’s victim—Joe Biden wrote an open letter praising her “breathtaking bravery” and her victim impact statement was read aloud in Congress—and the millions of women who tweeted their sexual assault stories in response to the Access Hollywood tape, 2016 saw a kind of collective unburdening by alleged victims and a rejection of the stigma surrounding sexual assault.
Much of that collective unburdening was inspired by the 7,000-word statement that Turner’s victim read aloud to him in court, recounting her experience of the assault and the suffering she endured afterward in frequently graphic and heart-wrenching detail.
Perhaps most powerful was her parting message to other victims: “On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you.”
Biden said that her 7,000-word statement should be “required reading for men and women of all ages,” and CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield devoted more than 20 minutes of a segment of Legal View to reading it aloud, without interruption, on air.
The media’s extensive coverage of the Stanford rape case further elevated our national conversation about sexual assault.
In the months after Turner’s sentencing, the conversation continued to play out mainly on college campuses, feminist websites, and the insular world of Twitter.
Then came Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” boast, which provoked a deluge of women accusing the Republican nominee of sexual assault and misconduct. What was an anguished debate mostly conducted among academics and media commentators was thrust into the mainstream.
While there are pending harassment suits against Trump’s companies, none of the women who came forward to accuse him of sexual assault or misconduct following the Access Hollywood tape has taken legal action, though Trump himself threatened to sue them for defamation prior to his election.
Sexual assault advocates argued that Trump’s dismissal of his crude boasting as “locker-room talk” encapsulated so-called rape culture, wherein men and boys are conditioned to think grabbing a woman’s genitals is OK. Men who have used locker rooms said they didn’t hear such language where they got changed.
The writer Kelly Oxford asked women to tweet stories of the first time they were sexually assaulted, and more than 8 million people responded within 24 hours. Less than two weeks after the tape’s leak, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) said calls to its hotline had surged 35 percent.
“I think that what we’re seeing is that survivors are not going to go back in the closet,” Terri Poore, director of policy with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told The Daily Beast. “They’re sticking together. They’re organizing. They’re being clear about the need to hold perpetrators and systems accountable. I think we will see change as a result of that, but there’s no doubt that there will be pain along the way as we air these attitudes and look at them from a different lens going forward.”
Political pundits predicted that Trump’s spectacular display of public misogyny just weeks before the election would sink his campaign. And in the immediate aftermath of the leaked tape, a number of high-ranking Republicans either publicly denounced the comments or withdrew their support. (In the heavily Mormon state of Utah, Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Gov. Gary Herbert, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman all defected, citing the 2005 tape.) But his sexist and bigoted rhetoric, of course, wasn’t a dealbreaker for American electorate, not even among those educated women who voted to elect a President Trump.
To feminists and victims of sex crimes, Trump’s victory was proof that America doesn’t take sexual violence against women seriously—and that rape culture is so entrenched in American life that voters were inured to it.
That sentiment was reinforced by Brock Turner’s curiously lenient six-month prison sentence, which precipitated a campaign to recall the judge who jailed him.
The campaign had raised $300,000 as of October, and said they were confident they’d raise $500,000 by the end of the 2016 in order to get their vote on the ballot for the recall election next year.
A similar online campaign sprang up in August when a former University of Colorado student convicted of sexual assault received no prison sentence based on his ultimate show of remorse—a distinction from Turner, who maintained his innocence through the end of his trial.
Last month, a former Vanderbilt University student was sentenced to 17 years in prison for participating in the gang rape of an unconscious woman on campus three years ago—proof that, regardless of Rolling Stone’s fabricated gang rape story, these things do happen.
Off campus, pre-trial hearings in the sexual abuse case brought by Andrea Constand against Bill Cosby do not bode well for the former comedian.
Last week, a judge ruled that a decade-old deposition in which the former comedian discussed drugging women before having sex with them can be used against him in his forthcoming criminal trial. In court on Tuesday, prosecutors argued that 13 other women who have accused Cosby of drugging or sexually assaulting them should be able to testify in trial because their allegations reveal a “common scheme” that he used against Constand.
Also on Tuesday, Fox was hit with yet another lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by its former chairman Roger Ailes, who was fired in July after Carlson sued him for harassment.
In the latest suit, a current Fox 5 reporter alleges that Ailes asked her to stand up so that he could “see [her] from behind” while she was interviewing for a job at the network.
While American voters might not have revolted in response to allegations against Trump, activists nevertheless see the Trump election and the increasing media focus on campus rape as a turning point in their campaigning around sexual assault.
“Advocates are not going to stand for policies or leaders that don’t do a good job of addressing this issue,” said Poore. “Not only are we going to be holding leaders accountable for their positions on policy, but also how they talk about these issues.”
And unlike anytime in recent history, people are paying attention. Earlier this year, The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on campus, was broadcast by CNN in primetime.
In 2014, the Obama administration launched the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly spoken out on the issue. Universities across the country have since adopted affirmative consent policies and other educational initiatives to prevent sexual assault on their campuses.
This changed climate has prompted those who might previously have remained silent to publicly advocate on behalf of other sexual assault victims. In August, several months after Turner was sentenced, another victim of a high-profile campus sexual assault told her story and revealed her identity for the first time on NBC’s Today.
Chessy Prout, 17, said she hoped going public with her story of being assaulted by Owen Labrie at the elite St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire would send a message to other survivors that they “don’t have to be ashamed either.” Last year, Labrie was found guilty on three misdemeanor charges of sexual assault but acquitted of felony sexual assault.
Prout’s appearance on Today came on the heels of a pseudonymous lawsuit brought by her family against the school, claiming St. Paul’s failed to address the predatory hook-up culture on campus that they believe precipitated Prout’s assault.
Speaking to Today’s Savannah Guthrie, Prout said she’d launched a sexual assault advocacy initiative and social media campaign to make others “feel empowered and just strong enough to be able to say, ‘I have the right to my body, I have the right to say no.’”
This is, of course, not to say that we haven’t seen setbacks for victims of sexual assault this year, but that they’re speaking out now more than ever—and that they won’t be silenced by a blowhard sexist in the Oval Office come inauguration day.