The Politicization of Sexual Assault: Turning a Serious Issue into a Spectacle

Illustration by Michelle Wu.

The “locker room talk” narrative of the 2016 presidential campaign was suddenly overshadowed on the afternoon of October 9th. Only hours before the second presidential debate, the media’s reruns of the infamous Access Hollywood video were replaced with images of Donald Trump sitting alongside four women. Though the camera remained trained on Trump and his statements, each of the women with him maintained expressions of weariness and anxiety. These women had come forth claiming that they had been sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. After briefly acknowledging their experiences, Trump attacked Bill Clinton, assailed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and further elaborated on why he was not the villain in this campaign.

All the while, those four women sat in silence like props within a larger dramatic production.

The production continued in the days following the debate as women came forward with allegations of Trump sexually assaulting them. Again, attention turned to Donald Trump and how he would react. After all, he was running for the presidency of the United States, and many could not condone his behavior. Again, Trump attacked Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton. He refuted the claims being made against him — and proceeded to further attack Bill Clinton.

And again, the women on both sides who came forward with their stories remained in the background as props to advance the larger political narrative. The nation was abuzz with talk regarding Trump and how heinous his actions were, and there were remarks concerning the shame and loneliness felt by the accusers of Bill Clinton, but overall there was little mention of the consequences experienced by the women who had been assaulted.

If we’re going to talk about sexual assault, then we need to have a productive conversation. Both sides of this election claim to understand that sexual assault is wrong, but we cannot just acknowledge the problem without trying to fix it. It is not enough to only get angry at the sexual misconduct of high profile politicians. If we care about these survivors, then we need to care about all survivors. We need to talk about why rape culture exists and how it functions — otherwise these unwanted sexual advances will continue.

While we should always listen to the voices of survivors, bringing out Bill Clinton’s accusers functioned as more of a political weapon than a way of helping the survivors heal and seek justice. Trump appeared compassionate towards the victims in order to gain their endorsement and discredit the Clintons. If he really cared about sexual assault survivors then he would be making more of an effort to dismantle rape culture. Sexual assault survivors deserve empathy, and their pain should not be exploited for political gain. Trump may have won the support of the accusers, but he should be offering support in return. Sexual assault is not something that should only be talked about when convenient. It is something that affects the lives of countless people, and right now we are letting them down. We should be advocating for all survivors and constantly working towards a world where assault no longer occurs, rather than bringing up select cases for political gain.

There are serious allegations of the mistreatment of women aimed at both sides of this election, but neither side has made any real efforts to address them. Trump dismissed the video of his lewd conversation about women as “locker room talk” and allegations of assaulting women as “false smears.” Clinton has said little regarding both the accusations of her husband’s sexual assaults and of her threatening or intimidating these women to silence them.

While these accusations have yet to be verified, the public should err on the side of the alleged survivors, as statistically false reports are very rare. It is understandable to want to stick up for the candidate you support, but it is most important to support the survivors in this situation, as they are the ones who have truly felt pain. If the accusations are true, then each candidate should admit their respective wrongdoings and apologize. When those who run our country will not unconditionally demand the fair treatment of all women, it sends the message that no one else has to either: that is not the kind of country we should be building.

Michelle Obama’s speech at a rally in New Hampshire is an example of how we should be directing our conversation about sexual assault towards preventing future occurrences. We have heard so much about each side’s errors in an attempt to denigrate them, but this speech helped shine light on what is wrong with our society. Michelle Obama’s decision to address this topic rather than give her usual campaign speech helped broadcast the issue to a larger audience and got the country thinking about the profound flaws in our views toward women. She pointed out that women avoid this conversation because “too many are treating this as just another day’s headline, as if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted, as if this is normal, just politics as usual.” Bringing up sexual assault in front of the nation proved the gravity of the issue.

By asking the audience to consider how dismissing Trump’s boasts of assaulting women as “locker room talk” will affect our children, Michelle Obama exposes this reaction as the highly problematic act of misogyny that it really is. We need to raise our children to value women and treat them fairly. If adults cannot treat women with respect, then boys will learn that they do not have to either, and girls will grow up with the tragic belief that they do not deserve respect.

Our children need to understand what sort of behavior is and is not acceptable from all people, but especially from a presidential candidate. If we treat this as “politics as usual,” rather than recognizing the issue for what it is, nothing will get better. We should be using this presidential campaign as a learning opportunity so that we can move forward. Sexual assault is an issue that needs to be talked about, but it is time to steer the conversation away from smearing the opposing candidate and towards creating a society where women are respected as individuals – not viewed as props or objects.

By Jhemari Quintana and Maddy Offerman

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