Donald Trump And Our American Culture Of Violence Against Women
[Y]ou are not ashamed of your sin [in committing adultery] because so many men commit it. Man’s wickedness is now such that men are more ashamed of chastity than of lechery. Murderers, thieves, perjurers, false witnesses, plunderers and fraudsters are detested and hated by people generally, but whoever will sleep with his servant girl in brazen lechery is liked and admired for it, and people make light of the damage to his soul. And if any man has the nerve to say that he is chaste and faithful to his wife and this gets known, he is ashamed to mix with other men, whose behaviour is not like his, for they will mock him and despise him and say he’s not a real man; for man’s wickedness is now of such proportions that no one is considered a man unless he is overcome by lechery, while one who overcomes lechery and stays chaste is considered unmanly. – St. Augustine
Does a rake deserve to possess anything of worth, since he chases everything in skirts and then imagines he can successfully hide his shame by slandering [women in general]? – Christine de Pizan,
I think it’s important to begin with, well, a little confession of sorts. Like pretty much most adolescent males of my generation (late baby-boomer), the high school locker room was a place for bragging, usually making up stories to make oneself look a better “guy” than you actually were. I participated in that no less than any other adolescent, and truth be told I wish I’d had a better sense of who I was and what it meant to be a real man, rather than “a guy”. I don’t carry this around as a huge weight, because, let’s be honest about something else: I was a stupid kid, with marginal self-esteem at best like most of my peers.
The point of this little confession isn’t so much about my own stupidity as it is the ease we all felt when speaking casually about girls and young women, sexualizing their every act, their dress, congratulating one another when one or another of us reported sexual success. This nonchalance regarding the humanity of the young women around us shocks me now. It’s difficult, I think, for those who may not have gone through such rites of passage – and I’m guessing there are some men, at least, who did not act this way – to understand just how little we thought of the young women in our lives.
I got thinking about this when I read a story about one man who defended Trump’s “Grab them by the pussy,” comment by calling it “guy talk”. Because, dear men everywhere, can we all be honest enough to admit that even if we were never as brazen as Trump to talk like this outside the safe-spaces of a man’s only world, whether or not we said such things, we heard them said and didn’t attack the person who said it? This is so because, yes, this is indeed “guy talk”. It is, however, “guy talk” of insecure, immature adolescents who, afraid both of women and their own inability to act properly and appropriately around them, create scenarios that make them look both far more sophisticated and experienced than they are. It is indeed locker room banter. And it’s banter like this that deserves to stay precisely where it originates: in junior high and high school boys’ locker rooms, providing object lessons in how not to speak or think about women.
In 2005, the World Health Organization conducted a multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women, following on the United Nation’s adoption both of particular definitions of violence against women and creating guidelines for member states to use when combating the problem. Among the findings highlighted at the link above:
- between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime;
- between 10.3–11.5% of women reported sexual violence by someone other than a partner since the age of 15 years
- the first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 17% of women in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh reported that their first sexual experience was forced.
A fact sheet on the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) website offers some sad, sobering numbers on violence against women in the United States.
- In 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner.1 That’s an average of three women every day. Of all the women murdered in the U.S., about one-third were killed by an intimate partner.
- According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.4
- According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day.6
According to The Gale Group, while all states had outlawed “wife beating” by 1920, it was only in the 1970’s that domestic violence became a category in criminal law in the United States. According to a March 2014 article in the UK edition of Cosmopolitan, “domestic violence” is not specifically outlawed either in England or Wales; all the police and prosecutors can do is act against specific acts of violence rather than patterns of behavior. Considering just the stories and experiences from my own life, I cannot think of a single woman I know who has not in one way or another, experienced everything from lewd and harassing comments through some kind of unwanted physical attention to rape. I think it’s important to remember these facts and figures going forward.
Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States is a uniquely violent place. Our history of the casual acceptance of violence as part and parcel of life is something we are only now, early in the 21st century, trying to change. That change is achingly, painfully slow. State-sanctioned violence against women and minorities continues to be routine, with police departments refusing to consider changing either oversight regimens or even to hear criticisms of entrenched bias. While the military services are sexually integrated, sexual harassment and violence within the ranks of service-members is both rampant and a scandal civilian leaders of our military continue to struggle both to understand and control. Even the casual sexism we read and hear through the media, such as attacking women (both prominent and not) for their looks or dress; rape victims continually harassed by attorneys and even judges for their dress and actions before, during, and after rapes to insist what occurred was consensual in some fashion; various online scandals involving the harassment of women, from this past summer’s attack on actress Leslie Jones by Breitbart.com tech editor, serial fat-shamer, and all-around young-sociopath-about-town Milo Yiannopoulos to the long-running GamerGate; all this shows that far too many men still believe it more than acceptable to treat women as less than human.
All of this is to suggest both that there is little that’s surprising about Trump’s actual comment and I’m bemused by the Capt. Renault-like shock, shock! that a powerful man whose entire Presidential campaign is rooted in a kind of barely repressed violent hatred of the Other, and whose every unscripted comment seems to be the bragging of a deeply insecure, frightened, immature boy, would say that he feels it acceptable for him to commit sexual violence. Ours is a nation whose misogyny is deep, institutionalized, supported by legal statute and custom, and rampant. As the quote from a sermon by St. Augustine shows, the prerogative powerful men have always felt toward women is both ancient and not limited to the United States. Hearing yet another powerful man casually endorse violence against women, and a obsequious younger man remain both passive, endorsing such behavior by silent consent is neither surprising nor worth so many acting so “shocked”.
I know there are pundits and political commentators who are so upset that the Trump campaign has seemingly “mainstreamed” some of the worst attitudes and behaviors in our land. I disagree for this simple reason: To me it almost feels like a wound is being cleansed, as if all this horrible ichor from deep within our national psyche is being purged. That some, including the otherwise insightful Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, insist there is something new about Trump’s mainstreaming racist and misogynyst language and violence, I think it’s important to remember that our founding document was only considered acceptable when it endorsed chattel slavery and reduced the human worth of African-Americans to 3/5ths that of a white man; that on the eve of the Civil War, Chief Justice of the United States Roger Taney declared that even free blacks had no rights in the United States; that women not only couldn’t vote until 1920, but for the majority of our country’s history couldn’t own property in their names, sue for divorce even for adultery, couldn’t attend colleges, couldn’t enter professions, and that many faced horrific violence at the hands of family members knowing there was neither recourse to the law nor to the churches, who endorsed such violence. Unless we somehow manage to forget our entire social, legal, and political history, there is nothing that surprising about Donald Trump endorsing violence against women. The difference now, however, is that the (public) expression of such attitudes is no longer acceptable; while there continue to be (and always will be) supporters who dismiss Trump’s words, the vast majority seem to be running from him as fast as their little legs can carry them; those whose support for Trump in the midst of all the hubbub are no longer offered any safe space or time from which to defend either Trump or his particular remarks. That is to say, like Trump’s statements regarding Mexicans being rapists and African-Americans all living in poverty and under conditions that are worse than war zones in Afghanistan, his casual misogyny is no longer acceptable rhetoric; those who support and defend racism, white nationalism, and violent misogyny are being both exposed and shunned.
Our history is violent. Our attitudes and our words and our actions and our institutions and our public policy are all deeply rooted in a bias against women and people of color. Trump’s campaign, for all its small-minded vulgarity, is showing us and the world that we actually are a better people than we might otherwise believe. We are struggling to be better neighbors to our Latino immigrants; we are struggling to push forward for better relations with African-Americans, including defending their rights; we are struggling to end our culture of violence against women. Trump and his campaign and its most heinous and vocal supporters are the shadow side of America, a shadow that, when inspected closely enough, seems to be receding much further and much faster than we previously thought. These are good things.
Trump is a horrible person. Of that there can be no doubt. Because of that very horribleness, however, we can see just how much better the vast majority of us and our fellow Americans really are.
And the election is now less than a month away, so it will all be over soon.