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What Trump’s Brag About Sexual Assault Reveals About This Election And Our Culture

The tape of Donald Trump bragging about being able to commit sexual assault has thrown the presidential race into turmoil, but it also raises issues that have less to do with electoral politics. Several FiveThirtyEight staffers got together to talk about Donald Trump’s comments about sex assault and the reaction to them. A lightly edited transcript is below.


blythe (Blythe Terrell, senior editor): We’re coming off an eventful weekend in the presidential election. On Friday, we saw the release of a tape in which Republican nominee Donald Trump brags about being able to get away with sexual assault — saying, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it.” And then says, “Grab them by the pussy.”

In this case, Trump was speaking into a mic in a TV show van and apparently didn’t realize he was being recorded. But he was clearly in a professional environment, which is another piece of it that was … surprising.

christie (Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer): I had a really visceral reaction to the Trump tape. It reminded me of times where I’ve been treated in a way that told me that as a woman, my ideas will never be given as much consideration as my body, at least with certain men. It’s a very disempowering, vulnerable feeling.

colleen (Colleen Barry, general editor): Yeah, I really dislike the “locker-room talk” characterization this is getting. “Locker-room talk” implies that everyone is vulnerable (read: naked) and the conversations that go on are 1. meant to stay private and 2. meant to cover the awkwardness of everyone showering together. No one here was vulnerable or in a situation where they should reasonably expect privacy — they were all prepped for a TV appearance, and they all knew they were miked.

christie: It’s striking to me that this was not a locker room and he was not among a group of friends. This was a professional setting, they were two grown men and the purpose here seems to be to self-aggrandization.

blythe: Right. He was with Billy Bush, who was on “Access Hollywood” at the time and is now on NBC’s “Today” show (he’s been suspended). Bush did nothing on the tape to change the course of the conversation or push back against Trump.

maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): I’ve had really conflicting thoughts about this. It gives me the same reaction as Christie’s, but, also, I’m incredibly frustrated by what is and isn’t considered “a line too far” in this election. It’s OK to mock a reporter’s disability. It’s OK to say a judge should recuse himself because of his ethnicity. But it’s only now that Republican leaders are like, “Whoa whoa whoa!”

christie: I agree, Maggie. It’s very telling (about the GOP) that it was forgivable to denigrate those other groups, and here I think the word “other” is exactly right.

The thing about women is that everyone has a personal relationship with at least one of them. And, as our colleague Nate Silver has tweeted, if Trump loses women, he loses the election.

blythe: There’s been some polling to suggest that women are more likely to think worse of Trump after this than men do. Though also, 10 percent of Republicans said the video gave them a positive feeling, according to Politico/Morning Consult. Which is pretty astonishing to me.

colleen: Part of me wonders if that 10 percent are stubbornly saying they feel positive to spite a presumed liberal audience.

christie: Wow, I’m disturbed by the idea that the video could give someone a positive feeling. It speaks to the fact that sexism is not some feminist fantasy.

colleen: Exactly, Christie. The party organization was OK with Trump’s comments as long as he was attacking people who mostly don’t vote Republican anyway. But when he offended women (and especially that “married women” or “suburban women” demographic that tends to be more conservative), they’re suddenly outraged.

christie: One concern I have is that the GOP writes this off as one bad apple, when we’ve got a larger cultural problem that won’t go away with Trump. It’s certainly not all men. But it’s more than just Trump. A lot of people have pointed out on Twitter that Trump rallies are filled with people wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Trump that bitch.”

maggiekb: But I think it’s worth pointing out, Christie, that a lot of people of color aren’t reading this as the GOP finally doing something when it’s about women. There have been several op-eds, like this one from Danielle Moodie-Mills in Essence, where people of color are saying that what they see is the GOP standing up for, specifically, white women.

blythe: Right. One question I have about this, and Maggie, you mentioned this in Sunday night’s debate live blog, is who is most likely to be the victim of sex assault?

maggiekb: Exactly, Blythe. As much as this stuff has struck a chord with people like Christie and I, the people most likely to be sexually assaulted are women of color. Specifically Native American women, who are 2.5 times more likely than women as a whole to experience sexual violence.

christie: Yes, I wonder if there would have been as much outrage if Trump’s behavior had been targeted at, let’s say, an immigrant hotel maid of color. One thing I’ve noticed is that when we talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s often about white professional women, which excludes a whole range of experiences from the discussion.

colleen: Good point, Christie: The “Miss Housekeeping” comment about Alicia Machado doesn’t seem to have generated nearly as much outrage.

blythe: To that point, Christie, there are so many examples of women’s experiences — and there have been some victories, like rulings for female farm workers and legislative attention for female janitors who have been sexually assaulted at work.

(Most sex assaults happen near home, but 12 percent of people report that they were working at the time of the assault, according to RAINN, an advocacy group that supports survivors.)

christie: Yes, those are really important victories.

maggiekb: And the other thing that’s important to note about those statistics is WHO is assaulting Native American women. Unlike black women and white women, who are most likely to experience violence from other members of their racial category, Native women are not, generally speaking, being victimized by Native men.

colleen: To Maggie’s point, Native American women’s assault is facilitated by the fact that it’s almost impossible to prosecute rapists who commit the crime on reservations.

blythe: I think a lot of these facts raise something that came up again and again with the Trump tape: power dynamics.

christie: It’s hard to speak up, but it’s also exhausting, especially when the cost of speaking up is likely to be greater than the reward. The ugly fact is that the burden to do something usually rests with the target of the harassment.

A Michigan State University study published a few years ago concluded that some types of harassment are so common that women may come to view them as merely “bothersome” and the effect may be that women build an immunity to these behaviors, much like you build immunity to a virus.

christie: This is so often framed as a women’s issue. But it’s not. This problem isn’t women’s doing, and the ultimate solution needs to involve men; they have the most power to change the culture. It’s the men like Billy Bush who accept and participate in this culture who have the most power to change it. Why must victims be the ones to solve the crime?

maggiekb: With the Billy Bush thing, I think that’s a great example of why employers should be paying attention to this stuff. Would you ever want to work with him again, as a female co-host? How can you trust a colleague who would throw you under the bus like that?

colleen: It’s Bush’s behavior after they got off the bus that appalls me more than his silence on the bus. He twice encourages the woman they’re meeting to be in physical contact with Trump (asks for a hug, puts her between them) and makes a number of sexualized comments. He’s basically offering contact with an attractive woman as a prize to keep Trump happy.

christie: Yeah, that really bothered me, too, Colleen. They are treating her like an object. An object for men’s amusement.

blythe: The woman, Arianne Zucker, later said on Twitter that she has “grown to learn that the words of others cannot effect the value of my self worth or define the content of my character.”

One question I’ve had since this tape emerged, though: What would prompt a guy to speak up? What’s the incentive to tell Trump that this talk and behavior isn’t acceptable?

christie: One of the key problems here is that there’s essentially no incentive for anyone to speak up. (I think this explains the study that found a kind of immunity to smaller forms of harassment — the cost of speaking up is so high and requires so much energy, that it’s easier to let it slide.)

A 2009 study involving 250 male undergrads found that they had negative feelings and opinions about women who confronted a harasser, particularly if the confrontation was over subtle, rather than overt, harassment.

maggiekb: And that lack of trust that these kind of situations create, that has a big impact on work environments. Lack of trust inhibits learning. It inhibits productivity. It inhibits a group’s being able to collaboratively get anything done. This isn’t just “fix male behavior because it makes women sad.” This is “fix male behavior because it destroys trust, ruins your organization, and screws up society.”

Watching Billy Bush sacrifice his colleague on the altar of “locker-room banter,” I had to wonder: How many offices are going to get less productive because Bush is showing women what they fear their male colleagues are doing behind their backs?

christie: Agreed, Maggie. And there is evidence that organizations avoid diversity at their own risk. An organization that doesn’t respect and value women and other diverse voices does so to their own detriment.

So a lot of people will say that this case is an outlier, and most workplaces aren’t like that. But it’s frustratingly hard to quantify how common sexual harassment is.

A couple of years ago, some colleagues and I tried to answer that question for our field — science writing. What we found is that it’s easy to find women (and some men) who have experienced harassment, but it’s hard to know exactly how common it is. We had more than 500 responses to our survey, but we don’t know the experience of others in the field who didn’t respond.

When I wrote about this, I got a lot of pushback from (mostly men) saying that because we don’t know the denominator, we don’t know the actual rates. Which is true, but what we do know is that there are a hell of a lot of women (and some men) who have been subjected to sexual harassment at work, and to say that it’s not a problem is to dismiss these experiences.

blythe: It’s also hard to say how common sexual assault is, particularly since more than 60 percent of it isn’t reported to police.

colleen: In this case, the way Trump and Bush set things up made it difficult for the woman to push back but very easy for her to go along with it, and a lot of people will feel they have no realistic choice but to take the path of least resistance in a situation like that, when they know the consequences will much more likely fall on the victim than the harassers.

christie: I think a lot of people, myself included, have stood by as bystanders and said nothing. And partly that’s because it’s so uncomfortable. When it happens, it usually takes me a minute to process. WAIT — is this really happening? Did he just say what I thought he did?

blythe: Yeah. And sometimes you try to laugh it off or otherwise extricate yourself without confrontation — at least, I have — because otherwise there’s a fear that it’s about to get worse.

colleen: Yeah, however bad a person’s comments are, you always worry that confronting them about it will make them turn violent. Not everyone will react with violence — not even a majority of people — but you have no way of knowing beforehand who will and who won’t.

christie: I was talking with male friends about this and they said that when they’ve heard this kind of talk it’s usually among “old timers” and the situation may be one where there’s no benefit to him to speak up, but there might be a cost. So what does it take to change the incentives? How do these cultural norms change?

maggiekb: I grew up with mostly male best friends. Same when I was in college. And there was definitely a point where it hit me that I was buying into the cultural norms of letting stuff slide instead of challenging it.

blythe: In terms of the cost, it seems that norms have to change. Not sure how that happens. The It’s On Us campaign is trying to do that, and there are some other groups working on it, too.

christie: What I’ve seen is that experienced creeps actually use this uncomfortableness to push their boundaries. They’re betting that you won’t say anything. That’s how they get away with it.

I do think there are good men out there who are pushing this issue and willing to stand up to other men who harass women. Could this Trump scandal be the thing it takes for such a movement to take hold?

maggiekb: I think there’s also a good number of creeps who don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong, because nobody has ever said, “Hey, you do realize that’s messed up, right?”

colleen: I think there’s an easily accessible cultural script for men who are defending “their” women — witness all the “as a father of two daughters” type reactions to this tape — but there’s not one for men defending women in general. So when men are in an all-male space and another man says something about their girlfriend, it’s easy for them to react, but it’s not as easy to say, “Hey, not cool,” when others say something more generally offensive. I wonder if that makes it easier for people who make these comments to get away with it, because lack of a script slows down reaction times. By the time someone knows what to say, the conversation has moved on.

blythe: Good point, Colleen.

maggiekb: Which reminds me

RIP THE TOAST

blythe: I love that, Maggie!

This did result in a lot of women speaking up about their assault experiences on Twitter (and elsewhere), which was extremely powerful.

colleen: Let’s highlight that the framing of this is “your first assault” — so many women have more than one, sometimes way more.

maggiekb: Christie, you shared that story you wrote for Slate, about your running coach who assaulted a teammate. That was so powerful and heart-wrenching.

christie: And it’s surprisingly common.

What that experience taught me is that there’s almost a script that some of these predators follow. And now that I recognize it, I see it everywhere. They target vulnerable women first.

maggiekb: I honestly don’t remember specific incidents of sexual harassment … just a sense of dread and shame about my body, and fear of older men, that kind of permeated my life between the ages of 12 and 20. I was never assaulted by anybody. But people said things to me, treated me and looked at me in ways that made me feel bad about myself.

And then it was done. And I don’t know if that’s because I just became more confident. Or if these guys are really primarily directing this crap at very young women.

blythe: I can’t stop thinking about a close call from when I lived in Austin right after college. I went out to grab a beer after work (I was a copy editor; my shift ended at midnight). And I was at one of my favorite bars. I drank one beer and then ordered a second. I went to the bathroom and left it on the bar — I knew the bartender, wasn’t worried — and drank it when I came back. That was when I noticed the two guys down the bar watching me. And I started to feel very, very drunk.

I called a friend immediately and said, “You need to come get me. Now.”

While I was waiting outside for him, the two guys walked up to me and asked me what I was up to.

maggiekb: Oh, Jesus, Blythe.

christie: Wow, that’s scary, Blythe. So glad you escaped.

blythe: My friend got there and picked me up. I was just so furious.

colleen: Oh God, Blythe, I’m so sorry that happened.

blythe: I got lucky.

christie: Rightly so. Lucky in your unluckiness!

colleen: The Everyday Sexism Twitter account earlier this year asked people to share stories of harassment and assault using the hashtag #WhenIWas, and they got I don’t know how many thousands (millions?) of responses, but many of the people were extremely young.

blythe: Yeah, according to RAINN, about 63,000 children a year are victims of sexual abuse. Among those younger than 18, 34 percent are younger than 12.

christie: There’s also a lot of victim blaming. It’s your fault if you were drunk or in a vulnerable situation (alone at a bar).

colleen: A guy tried to masturbate on me on the subway last year, and when I got where I was going, I told my friend, and we were both like, “Ugh, I hate it when that happens,” the way you react when, I don’t know, the conductor closes the train doors in your face.

blythe: Oh my God.

colleen: The incident barely bothers me, but the fact that it doesn’t bother me does bother me.

christie: So gross! And yet, isn’t it telling that it’s like, bleh, another crappy subway ride.

colleen: Yup. The scenic 1 train, everybody!

blythe: Ha. I think that’s part of why I wonder if this tape will change anything, really.

maggiekb: One thing I would like to talk about before we end here is the Bill Clinton-size elephant in the room. Because I’m torn on this, as well. Hillary Clinton is obviously not responsible for Bill’s behavior. But I think there’s a lot to be reckoned with about how people in liberal circles have thought about and treated Bill because of Bill’s behavior.

And Trump’s reaction — hypocritical though it may be — is pointing that out.

christie: Right, but Trump’s use of Bill is so awful and sexist.

maggiekb: For sure. But there’s definitely been a sense of “Oh, ol’ handsy Bill!”

That needs to stop.

He shouldn’t get a pass. We should be paying attention to the fact that there are women who say he raped them. Just like we pay attention to that with Bill Cosby.

blythe: No one should get a pass. The Washington Post has a guide to some of the Clinton claims, and here’s Fusion on other cases related to Trump.

christie: I totally agree.

maggiekb: And I don’t know how to grapple with that while simultaneously saying, “This is not Hillary’s fault.”

christie: But Bill is not running for president. And it’s not her fault.

My guess is that Trump’s strategy of bringing up Bill Clinton’s infidelities and the rape charges against him are going to backfire. That strategy will play well with his die-hard supporters who already hate Hillary, but most people will look at that and wonder, what kind of man brags about his own infidelities and then blames a woman for her husband’s transgressions?

colleen: “This is not Hillary’s fault but also she’s heard these accusations and has done nothing to address them,” to complicate Maggie’s already complicated point.

maggiekb: Right. It’s hard to get across the nuance here.

Colleen: There are a lot of layers. Crappy, gross layers.

maggiekb: It’s slimy filthbuckets all the way down.

blythe: Happy Monday, everyone.

christie: I liked Dan Savage’s unsolicited advice to Hillary Clinton. Though it doesn’t really address the rape charges.

colleen: If the election were any further away, I’d be volunteering for that mission to Mars.

blythe: I want to mention a little bit more polling about this tape: 61 percent of voters said it made them feel less favorable toward Trump, 28 percent said it didn’t change their view of the candidate, and 8 percent said it made them feel more favorably toward Trump.

maggiekb: Those 8 percent scare the shit out of me.

As a mother of daughters. I have to assume, though, that at least some of those 8 percent don’t mean it, exactly. That they’re saying it makes them feel more favorable out of defiance.

blythe: And we don’t yet know what the tape will do long term, if anything. Paul Ryan has said he’s not going to defend Trump.

maggiekb: There’s been, after all, a strong thread of defiance against what they say you’re supposed to think throughout Trump’s campaign.

blythe: Yeah, Maggie, we’ll probably know more as more polls come in.

christie: I’m really curious to see what happens next.

blythe: That New York Times story above also says some politicians within the GOP are not pleased with what Ryan said, so who knows.

maggiekb: I really like the line about how the way to deal with stuff like this is not to “protect” women but to treat women as human beings.

maggiekb: I don’t need my husband or my brother or my dad to jump between me and a grope-y hand. I need them, and other men, to show me the same kind of respect they reserve for each other. And to call out men who don’t.

christie: Another important point is that men are hurt by Trump’s “locker-room” culture, too. They’re taught that their masculinity is dependent on mistreating women, and I doubt that most men really want to behave that way.

maggiekb: Yes. My husband, for one, is pretty offended that people are claiming this kind of behavior is just natural for men. Maybe we need #notmylockerroom?

blythe: Yeah, some athletes have pushed back against that description.

colleen: I’ll cosign what Maggie said and add that when men hear about these incidents from women, they should try to listen and believe rather than question. Many, many women (one study says at least 43.9 percent) have these stories, but when they report them to male friends and relatives and aren’t believed, they’re less likely to get support and less likely to report crimes of this type.

maggiekb: That’s, like, the same percentage of Americans who say they’ve tried pot. That’s huge.

colleen: That’s from one of the studies that describes behavior that constitutes sexual assault instead of asking people if they’ve been assaulted or committed assault. That technique tends to produce much higher results on both sides of the equation.

blythe: Thanks, everyone, for participating. This isn’t an easy thing to talk about. Sexual assault resources through RAINN are available here or by calling 800-656-4673.

Christianna Silva contributed research.

Blythe Terrell is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Colleen Barry is a general editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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