Although they have never been recognized as a constituency, millions of American voters—men as well as women—have been sexually abused, and for them, the presidential campaign has become a riveting drama and a source of fresh pain. They recognize themselves in the women who have come forward to report gross encounters with Donald Trump, and they see in the much of the response to their charges a familiar kind of deflection and denial.
Before I published a current biography of Donald Trump called The Truth About Trump, I authored a history of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. This work required me to research the behaviors of sexual predators, to learn the lifelong effects of the wounds they inflict, and to understand the dynamics that prevent so many victims from coming forward to speak the truth for years, and even decades.
They stay silent out of shame, a false sense that they are responsible for what happened to them, and because they fear being ostracized, scorned, and worse if they speak up. (Catholic institutions have actually counter-sued victims who lose in court, demanding payment to cover legal costs.) Predatory men, and almost all the cases I studied involved men, understand the fears that keep people quiet and play on them to escape accountability.
Because sexual predators are generally compulsive and fixated on certain kinds of victims, they tend to repeat their aggression in the same manner. They may age, but the people they victimize are often roughly the same age. The need they seek to satisfy is so ingrained that they use the same methods every time. And if they are not caught, they continue to offend. One predator priest in Louisiana had hundreds of documented victims.
When the predator is well known, as a teacher may be, his behavior may be seen, in retrospect, to be shockingly brazen. They often talk about how they “love” children, or women, or teens, and they put themselves in environments where they are likely to come in contact with lots of likely targets. If someone notes some questionable behavior they may even scoff at the observation, noting how ridiculous it would be for someone to take the risk of being caught when he has so much to lose.
The risk, it turns out, provides an adrenaline rush for aggressors. One Minnesota priest I studied committed his crimes in a public gym. Knowing that witnesses are near, and that a victim could call out for help—but it too intimidated to do so—adds an extra thrill to the episode. Intimidation, which can only be accomplished by people in power, is key to understanding why predators get away with it. Powerful men who pose as tough guys, and seem to have access to enormous resources, pose a special problem for victims. Who will risk standing up against such a person without knowing that others will share similar experiences?
More typical than the lone complainant is the enabler who not only encourages depraved behaviors and speech but enables it in a way that affirms a predator’s beliefs. This is what the world saw and heard as TV host Billy Bush clearly egged on Donald Trump as he said disgusting things about women. Worse was the way that Bush then asked actress Arianne Zucker, “How about a little hug for the Donald?” In this moment, when he pressured Zucker to have physical contact with a man who had just made sexually depraved comments about women, Bush affirmed Trump’s misogyny, and conspired with him to make a fool out an innocent woman.
As we have heard in the stories of women who have come forward this week to talk about being abused by Donald Trump, the memories of these incidents never fade, and the fear and anxiety they provoke can be powerfully inhibiting. Although skeptics will ask, “Where have these women been?”, I know that generally victims of powerful men who are sexual predators try to compartmentalize what happened to them and construct happy lives in spite of their suffering. When, years later, they hear that someone has spoken up about the man who harmed them, describing essentially the same scenario and the same outcome, their pain is revived. Older and wiser and feeling they might be believed as one of many, an individual will finally say, “It happened to me, too.”
So far the Trump scandal is playing out in a way consistent with what was seen in literally thousands of Catholic parishes around the world, where first one, then two, and then a torrent of complaints were lodged against specific priests. In no case did the mere volume, or the consistency of the stories, constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in all but a tiny percentage, victims have been found to be telling the truth, and the result has been settlements running into the billions of dollars and prison terms for more than a hundred priests.
I don’t know for certain whether anyone who has complained about Donald Trump is telling the truth. What I can say is that I am not surprised by the way the scandal is unfolding—one charge being followed by many—and that we’re likely to hear more voices of complaints. And for millions of victims what they are hearing now about a man running for president is going to determine their votes.