Donald Trump and the Normalization of Rape

As Donald Trump lashes out in defense against accusations of assaulting women, the drumbeat of denial comes down to a simple assertion that we have heard from countless men many times before: I am not that kind of man. A bad man, a man who hates women. I love women.

If only bad men rape and good men don’t, I wonder how we separate the one from the other, which occurred to me on reading a headline a few years ago about the multiple accusations against cultural icon, Bill Cosby: “Can We Save Cliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby?”

What follows is adapted from my response—”Can a Good Man Rape?”—which is every bit as timely now.

The question had some urgency because, unlike Donald Trump, for millions of Americans Bill Cosby was Cliff Huxtable, the lovable all-American sitcom dad, and then it turned out that we may have gone all those years not knowing who he really was. Cosby, it seemed, was only pretending to be the friendly face behind Jello pudding pops, the wonderful father, the playful observer of children and parents and married life, and now, old age. It had to be so, we thought, because it isn’t possible for both to be true. A good man, by definition, does not assault women.

And so, the good man who was embraced becomes the bad man to be shunned.

But how can this happen? How could we be so mistaken? And if it can be true of Bill Cosby, recipient of so much public affection and prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for whom could it not be true? Is there a public figure widely regarded as a ‘good man’ for whom such accusations would simply be impossible to believe? I have tried to think of one, but cannot.

Which is why, I think, there is a lack of surprise alongside the shock whenever a man is outed in this way. It doesn’t seem to take us long to adopt a very different view of him, because, I think, somewhere in ourselves we expect these things to happen, if not about this one in particular, then some man, sooner or later. And part of our chagrin is having that expectation borne out yet again.

And then there is the rush to put it all behind us, which makes me want to pause and ask what that’s about, what Cosby’s story—and, yes, even Donald Trump’s—might have to tell us about ourselves that we would rather not know.

One clue is that most women are assaulted by men who know them, which means at some point she feels safe enough to be with him in the first place. He hasn’t broken in to her apartment wielding a knife. He is already with her doing something else—on a date, maybe, or at work or a party— before he crosses the line from presumed good guy to not.

And when he does, I doubt that he thinks of himself as that—a rapist, a criminal, a felon, a predatory misognynist—even though he must be aware that he is doing something that if he were to ask her in the cold light of day, she would refuse, which is why he has to think of ways to overcome her resistance, to turn a no into a yes, if only in his mind, and, failing that, a silence that he can interpret any way he wants.

He sees himself as a man like so many men he knows or can imagine, just doing what a man—a real man—would do if it came down to that, finding a way to have sex with a woman who, to all appearances, does not want to have sex with him. The only question is, what means are acceptable to overcome her resistance?

Note that it isn’t whether to overcome, does he have the right, but how, reflecting a deep cultural ambivalence about a woman’s sovereignty and her right to live unmolested in the integrity of her own body; to not be stalked, harassed, pawed, or preyed upon, turned into an object of a man’s intention and desire; to be considered, listened to, and believed; to not know what she wants and yet still be allowed the freedom and solitude of her ambivalence, uncertainty, confusion, and doubt.

The ambivalence is reflected in the reluctance of women to tell anyone they’ve been assaulted, knowing all too well that if they do, how quickly they may be challenged and disbelieved, discredited and trashed, even blamed for what was done to them. Witness the large number of women who claim to have been raped by Bill Cosby, who have lived for decades in silence. There are laws against assault, but whether and how they are enforced is another thing altogether, from college administrators who take no action and prosecutors and police who look the other way rather than confront the rich and famous, to defense attorneys skilled at bring lawsuits or arguing the varieties of ‘consent’ and the nuances of ‘force.’

Once a culture normalizes the idea of men coercing women into sex they do not want, we are in a land where men can justify to themselves getting a woman drunk or giving her drugs or grabbing her crotch or pinning her to the wall or the floor or the bed, perhaps with the help of some friends, which, he will tell himself, is what she really wanted anyway, to be overwhelmed, to surrender to his need and desire and irresitable charm.

In such a world it can be difficult to pick out the men who assault from the men who don’t. I read about the epidemic of sexual violence in college dorms and fraternities, for example, where rape can take the form of manly sport, and the federal government having to go after colleges to compel them to take it seriously. And I think, if I tried to identify which young men would rape and which would not just from the kind of person they appear to be, how well would I do? Not well at all, it turns out, since half a century of research has yet to produce a psychological profile that would allow us to distinguish men who rape from men who don’t.

Not to mention trying to pick them out years later when they are married and have children and a place in the community, coaching youth soccer or Little League, professionals, perhaps, doctors and lawyers, or successful in business or politics or the arts, or just the hard-working friendly neighbor next door. Imagine all those college boys who rape, imagine them in middle age and then mix them in with all the men who don’t. Could we separate the ‘good’ men from the ‘bad’? Could the people who know them best—wives, siblings, and friends—tell us if this is the sort of man who would rape?

We would get it wrong much of the time, because when a society normalizes violence against women, the line between raping and not, between talk and assault, is a line you don’t have to be recognizably ‘bad’ to cross. ‘Good’ men do it all the time, supported by all those other ‘good’ men who are too afraid or too ambivalent or even too envious to go out of their way to stop it, like the fraternity brothers who stand by and watch or take pictures on their cell phones or turn away and pretend it isn’t happening.

Not only did we not know the real Bill Cosby, but, if it’s true that only bad men rape, then apparently we also don’t know a bad man—or a good one—when we see him. And that would include, for all we know, the Cliff Huxtable we want to save from Bill Cosby.

We want to save him because we think we know him, and it’s important that he be who we think he is, who we need him to be, the man, the father, who is unimpeachably good. But, of course, we know only what’s been shown to us—he being a television character, after all—but, also, just as we thought we knew Bill Cosby until the moment we did not.

The Bill Cosbys and Donald Trumps will come and go, but what remains is our reluctance to confront the reality of what makes them both possible and inevitable, a reality found not only in the world, but in ourselves.


For more on sexual violence, see “Why Men Rape.”

5 responses to “Donald Trump and the Normalization of Rape

  1. Anne Batterson Friday, October 14, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Having been heartsick, despairing actually, ever since the tape of Trump’s behavior came out a week ago, I am truly grateful that you were able to find the words to address this awful moment in history with wisdom and clarity. Michelle Obama’s words yesterday and yours today tell me that there is still hope as long as women and men are willing to fight for their wives and daughters, and grandchildren’s future.
    Thank you.

  2. lkeke35 Friday, October 14, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Women have been telling men this for some time now.The reason we treat all men with caution is because it is impossible for us to tell, just by looking at a man, whether or not he will be a danger to us. Asserting their own goodness, and getting offended when a woman doesn’t trust them…is just not that helpful.

  3. omlg67 Friday, October 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    Part of the ‘acceptance’ or unwillingness to deal with the global/historical/ sociological/cultural issue of men’s sexually abusive & violent behaviour towards women (including children) is it’s prevalence – it is quite simply overwhelming. It is hard not to interpret this as: ‘all males are prone to such behaviour, it is their natural state’. I know of no woman, NOT ONE, who has not been subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour &/or varying degrees of aggression or violence at one time or another (rape, sexual assault, groping, unwanted touching or grabbing parts of the body, flashing, sexually abusive & threatening language, attempts at sexual coercion or harassment, stalking, ‘night frights’, sexual blackmail in education & employment or suffering the consequences of refusing, inappropriate sexually demeaning & humiliating words, actions or visual depictions as women go about their day, etc. …). Men have trouble believing how ubiquitous such behaviour is despite being fully aware of the “locker room talk” about it. Virtually no man will voluntarily rail against it nor do they ever fully condemn it (present company excluded) either privately or publicly. I know of no one else but you willing to actively speak against it.

    When men are compelled to comment they always try to minimize it in some way. Witness the remarks made by Trump’s Republican colleagues & others: they all responded by citing OTHER females they knew rather than empathizing as if they themselves were on the receiving end of such appalling treatment. They did not condemn the behaviour as much as try to disassociate themselves from Trump who’d suffered the misfortune of getting caught in the act saying things which wouldn’t have been offensive had they remained within the confines of a men’s “locker room”. The remark that “women are to be championed & revered”, as if their place is to be owned & patronized by men, is also revealing. Women exist for men, not alongside men – these men clearly cannot even imagine what it might be like to be female in a patriarchal world. In truth all men have to do is ‘flip’ such situations (as is espoused in ancient patriarchal Mosiac Law ‘Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person’), they do not even have to try to imagine themselves as women experiencing such behaviour – however, they must imagine their aggressor is a threatening male, & not female, for the experience to match reality.

    Males who, when pressed, claim to be repulsed by such behaviour never point out that men like Trump should be viewed as inferior & not ‘real men’ – they are as far from the male ideal as it is possible to be. If they feel the need to resort to predatory, abusive or forceful behaviour against women, then this behaviour can only demonstrate that they are ‘less of a man’, not ‘more of a man’ (& less of a human being too). Men ought to ridicule such males & call them inadequate, rather than ‘champion & revere’ them. In doing so, of course, they risk being on the receiving end of male violence themselves.

    Male role models, usually called ‘heroes’, are too often cartoonish, fantastical creatures bearing little resemblance to reality. Films, T.V. & literature are dominated by them & their main attribute, violence, but what is never mentioned is that these ‘heroes’ invariably ‘rescue’ women from the violence of other men or bring the perpetrator to justice only after other women are gratuitously killed (usually after suffering some invented titillating sexual torture, because death is not enough when the victim is female). It has long been lamented that, even in this fantastical realm, female roles are largely ‘supportive’ (the ‘love interest’) & only women are required to appear unclothed.

    The prevalence of porn, along with the media’s portrayal of women (with, it has to be said, the complicity of women themselves) monotonously portraying females as alluring submissive sexual objects everywhere you look plays a huge part in normalizing & perpetuating the situation (try typing ‘women’ into Google.com). Women themselves do not seem to know what a ‘woman’ is; all too many seem to succumb to male caricatures of themselves & know no other way to be – they are only able to see themselves as men see them. Body dysmorphia has reached epic proportions. Those touted as ‘good’ female role models often merely emulate men because, of course, they have to somehow function within a patriarchal world (especially in politics).

    Women will never been allowed to be women (to, as you say, achieve full “autonomy”) in a hegemonically patriarchal world (where, using biblical terms again, ‘man serves the economy instead of the economy serving man’ & where exploiting fellow human beings & destroying the environment is what gets promoted, facilitated & rewarded – is it surprizing that women are more exploited within these male social constructs?). Women never think in terms of a ‘matriarchal world’ having dominion – they either adopt the patriarchal one or try to envisage a more humane one.

    • Allan Johnson Saturday, October 15, 2016 at 4:49 pm

      The only thing I would add is that, although men’s silence about men’s violence is a widespread part of the problem, there are also many men speaking out against men’s violence, including the global organization, Men Engage. See for example, this recent piece by Rob Okun, editor and publisher of Voice Male Magazine.

      • omlg67 Sunday, October 16, 2016 at 4:31 pm

        Thank you – so good to see a chink of light in the darkness… Though I’d given up sharing such things I’ve re-posted both your & Rob Okun’s articles in the feint hope it might inspire someone, somewhere.

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