By Rohini Banerjee:
“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
These shocking, terrifying words uttered by US presidential candidate Donald Trump have been all over the news in the past few days, highlighting how dangerously predominant rape culture still is. In this recording from 2005 (uncovered by The Washington Post last week), we hear Trump bragging about his license to sexually assault women just because he was famous. But it doesn’t just stop there – during the second presidential debate, Trump defended and nearly dismissed the gravity of these comments by calling it “locker room banter,” which was even more horrifying because he implied that this is how men talk about women in general and invoked the same old (and deeply problematic) ‘boys will be boys’ rhetoric. This rhetoric was made worse when on Monday (October 17), Melania Trump, during an interview with CNN, defended Trump’s comments, painting him as the victim by saying that he was ‘egged on’ into ‘boy talk’.
Melania’s comments were shocking, disturbing, and showed how deeply both women and men are conditioned into normalising rape culture because it is as common as ‘boy talk’ – but her comments didn’t come as a surprise, because during the course of the entire Trump campaign, she and all the other women involved in it (his two daughters and his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway) have been constantly excusing and standing by his horrifying and deplorable statements against women. Unfortunately, this isn’t an exception and women, especially in the past decade, have continued to excuse or condone assault by their politician (or any other public figure) husbands and relatives – including Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has positioned herself in this presidential race as a feminist champion, as the complete counterpoint of a bigoted, vitriolic Trump; and yet, when her husband and erstwhile president Bill Clinton went through a series of sex scandals in the 90s – with multiple women coming forward to accuse him of harassment and assault – Hillary had stood by him. Hillary’s silence when it comes to Bill’s assault accusations is telling – it was politically motivated, as if she was ignoring her husband’s blatant disregard of female consent for the ‘greater good’ – and even though many of her supporters choose to ignore this about Hillary and give her a leeway because the ‘90s were a far less liberal time and it was difficult for women to speak out, it still doesn’t change the fact that Bill barely faced any legal consequences of his actions, and Hillary continues to support him and be married to him. In fact, when the accusations against Bill had just surfaced, Hillary sat beside him during an interview in 1992 playing the dutiful wife as he defended himself against his allegations. Melania Trump seems to have taken a page out of the same book in her defence of Donald Trump’s horrific comments.
Closer home, when prominent Tehelka journalist Tarun Tejpal was convicted for sexual assault in 2013, the editor of Tehelka, Shoma Chaudhury had reportedly sent around an email to her employees that Tejpal’s actions had been a ‘lapse of judgement’. Another public, widely talked about assault case, and yet another woman related to the perpetrator excusing his actions. This is a deeply disturbing occurrence, which is basically yet another convoluted means of blaming the survivor for her assault rather than her assaulter, and this, again is why we need to talk about rape culture. By calling the casual suggestion of “grabbing a woman by the pussy” without her consent as innocuous ‘boy talk’ and by supporting the actions of serially accused sexual harassers just because they might be celebrated public figures reinforces how assault is still seen as the survivor’s fault, and how the narratives of female survivors continue to be ignored in favour of the credibility of the male perpetrator.
Since the leaking of the Trump Tapes, countless women have been coming forward to accuse Trump of having sexually harassed or assaulted them, and their stories have been truly horrific. These include that of a former Miss USA contestant who Trump kissed twice without her consent, a receptionist at Trump Tower who he kissed against her will, of Trump walking in on teen pageant contestants while they were changing, of him sexually harassing a woman during the 1993 White House Correspondent Dinner and so on and so forth. There have been multiple attempts from Trump supporters to discredit these women already. But not just that, many of Trump’s female supporters have actually come forward with slogans such as “he can grab me by the pussy anytime,” continuing to reinforce how disturbing our response to sexual violence is, how rape culture continues to run rampant.
This is the culture that spawns men like Stanford rapist Brock Turner – who got away with reduced jail time because apparently, his future as an Olympic swimmer takes precedence over the trauma of his survivor. This is the culture which conditions women to accept assault as a reality, which conditions men to continue to joke about assault as if it’s ‘boy talk’. And this, is exactly why we need to have more and more conversations about rape culture, and hold these entitled male public figures accountable for their actions rather than ignore or excuse their behaviour.