“It has shaken me to my core….”
Yes. This resonates.
Michelle Obama has just delivered the speech of her life — of the lives of many women who watched events in the presidential election since Friday with an increasing sense of disbelief.
How could we possibly, in 2016, have a major party candidate for president who spoke in such vulgar, demeaning, and exploitative ways about women, who then insists repeatedly that this is simply the way all men talk in private?
The number of women posting on social media about their own experiences of casual sexual assault — by strangers, by partners — that they never spoke about due to the shame they felt shows the nerve this hits.
The number of women who rejected Republican politicians seeking to distance themselves by first noting that they have women in their lives, demanding that men’s reactions not be conditional on such comments and actions affecting them personally.
The number of women who, after last Sunday’s debate, reported feeling sickened by the Republican candidate’s actions, speech, and menacing behavior, and saw in these echoes of experiences that we all have had at some time — but hoped were uncommon, exceptions to a better masculinity.
First Lady Michelle Obama is speaking for all these women, for all of them, for all of us: but she is also speaking for the men disgusted by these comments, made ill be the debate, reacting in distress to being made complicit in a giant conspiracy of male objectification, disrespect, and exercise of power over women.
These are men who reject not only the ex-reality TV “star,” but the simpering childish male who egged him on and then snickered as he encouraged a woman to let herself be embraced by men who had just moments before reduced her to a body part in their private domination fantasy.
Every two minutes, a person in this country is sexually assaulted. RAINN, a nongovernmental organization promoting education and action about sexual assault, reports that “only six out of 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison.” Assaults target people of all sexes/genders. Women and transgender people suffer the highest rates of sexual assault.
About two-thirds of sexual assaults are never reported to officials. As in the cases of women now coming forward to present their experiences with the Republican nominee for president, most women tell people they trust at the time, but some never do until long after.
RAINN reports reasons women gave for not reporting assaults:
- 20% feared retaliation
- 13% believed the police would not do anything to help
- 13% believed it was a personal matter
- 8% reported to a different official
- 8% believed it was not important enough to report
- 7% did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble
- 2% believed the police could not do anything to help
- 30% gave another reason, or did not cite one reason
These reasons should sound familiar: we are seeing retaliation happen right now, as surrogates and the candidate himself seek to portray women as attention-seeking, or politically motivated.
The women who report sexual groping face formidable social costs. They have to relive something where their powerlessness made them feel ashamed. They anticipate disbelief. They may even have learned to minimize their own reactions, as a coping strategy.
After all, this is just what men do, right?
Well, no. This is not an inherent aspect of masculinity. This is a form of masculine behavior this country has began to recognize as unacceptable, leading to the fall of other personalities from favor.
The truly toxic thing in this political campaign, the thing that makes women question progress has been made, is the way that surrogates for the Republican nominee have swung into action to defend his words, to normalize speech that on its own — even apart from the actions it mirrored — is hateful, demeaning, potentially demoralizing.
It starts with Rudy Giuliani, increasingly appearing to be living in a parallel universe, proposing that since redemption is established in Catholic, and therefore Christian, morality by the example of St Augustine, the Republican candidate’s speech (and implicitly, behavior) should be excused.
But there is no evidence of repentance here. Indeed, in the same interviews, Giuliani alternatively suggested that the comments shouldn’t be given weight because he had never heard such talk from his candidate. This is a kind of defense all too many women will recognize: “He never was that way around me, so you must be lying.”
And if two incompatible defenses were not enough, there was a third: Some of the demeaning, exploitative talk recorded and even broadcast was just “entertainment.”
The incoherence of the arguments offered about the recorded talk alone is staggering. It was normal masculine “locker room banter”, and also nothing his male friends have ever heard. It was not his real beliefs, it was just entertainment. It was something he said during a time of his life that is now in the past — when he was but a boy of 59 — and now, repentant, he should be forgiven.
But to be forgiven, Augustine had to first repent. He admitted his sins. He understood the effects of his actions, and he sincerely worked to counter them from that point on.
That is not what we have seen from this sinner.
“The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” Michelle Obama is asking us to understand that this manner of talking is itself bad treatment of women. It is consistent with other, less vulgar, demeaning speech on record from this unprecedented nominee for our highest elected office.
There is simply no response that is satisfactory that justifies continued support for a man who uses this language, treats women as things, and attempts to implicate us all in his behavior.
All men don’t talk this way. No women should have to put up with this kind of talk.