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To understand sexual assault, we still need to listen to Donald Trump

Image: Flickr/Paul Townsend

By now, I've heard "grab them by the pussy" so many times that I've lost count, and it seems that we're busy declaring, yet again, another so-called watershed moment in our national and international conversations on sexual violence. It's a shame that in order to do so, we have to listen to yet another powerful political and cultural figure openly denigrating women -- "nasty" women, to use his own parlance. I've been wondering: why was it only after the release of the Trump's 2005 Access Hollywood tape that we started really listening to women? And why are Trump's words the ones that get the most airtime, instead of those of the women who have bravely come forth to talk about their experiences? The answer is a troublesome one, but perhaps still one that holds a sad truth: the only way that we're going to believe survivors about the harassment and violence they experience is when the admissions come from alleged or convicted perpetrators themselves.

Allegations of sexual aggression on the part of Donald Trump are currently making news, but these stories aren't actually new at all. As recently reported by the New York Times, Trump was sued for sexual harassment in 1997 by Jill Harth, and a 1990s deposition by Trump's ex-wife Ivana Trump used the word "rape" to describe a violent encounter; Ivana would later go on to retract her use of this word. Yet, the fact remains: only after the release of the 2005 Access Hollywood recording, which contained Trump's own admission of predatory behaviour, did the public take great interest in the Republican presidential candidate's conduct towards women. Only after Trump spoke -- after he admitted, if not to particular actions, then at least to espousing vile and entitled attitudes towards women -- did other women feel safe in coming forward publicly. To date, there are at least a dozen women who have come forward with various allegations of sexually aggressive and violent behaviour.

So what's changed? At the third and final presidential debate at the University of Nevada, the audience laughed openly when Trump proclaimed -- no, insisted -- that "nobody respects women" more than he does: "nobody." The truth is, of course, that it is only thanks to a hot mic that we now have concrete proof of quite the opposite, hence the laughter. It is now an indisputable fact that Trump has proclaimed that he is entitled to "grab [women] by the pussy;" an incontrovertible certainty that he believes that he doesn't have to "wait" in order to "kiss them." For all that Trump bragged that Hillary Clinton wouldn't find a record of certain statements during the third debate, these particular quotable quotes can't be denied. They can be excused, of course, and they have been, by both Trump himself, his wife Melania, and countless other supporters. 

However, the very fact that the Access Hollywood tape exists is rare. The fact that former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi showed his bosses a video of a woman to whom he had inflicted serious injury is also rare. For far too long, and far too often, survivors of violence, harassment, and misogyny have been the ones tasked with proving that their bosses, their partners, their friends, or even perfect strangers on the street, have said or done violent things. When these perpetrators (alleged or convicted) appear to have spotless characters, when they embed themselves in social justice movements, or when they have enormous amounts of power, it becomes almost impossible for people to reconcile their favourable images of alleged perpetrators with the kinds of monstrosities that are being reported.  

Listen. I get it. Sexual violence has often been portrayed as the kind of thing that happens on a dark street corner at night, usually perpetrated by sociopathic monsters that could not otherwise function productively in society. And, of course, while those kinds of predators do exist, by and large, the people committing sexual assault and harassment are the very people we work with, live with, and those we admire. "But he's a good guy!" Stanford rapist Brock Turner was by all accounts an outstanding athlete. "But I've never known him to do this kind of thing!" Dennis Rader -- the infamous BTK killer -- was a Cub Scout leader and had been elected the president of his church council.  Sometimes, violence sometimes makes itself explicitly known as an extraordinary kind of evil; more often than not, however, it's mixed in with the terrible ordinariness of everyday life, from business to politics and beyond.

It's obvious that Donald Trump doesn't have the spotless reputation of a Cub Scout leader or a selfless volunteer. It is really no more a surprise that Trump was recorded saying misogynistic things about women than it is that he recently called Mexicans "rapists." After all, it has been 27 years since he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five. It's not a surprise given past public behaviour (for instance, his fat-shaming comments about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado) and yet many are still reacting with the shock and awe that a Republican presidential candidate might possibly still hold sway in the upcoming election and can still court public opinion despite the fact that he seems to have admitted to sexual assault. 

Survivors of sexual violence in particular are not surprised, but I can certainly say that many of them are exhausted by having to attempt to describe the actions and motivations of abusers, as if these people are mere figments of survivors' imaginations that they must attempt to convince people of. It is this exhaustion, perhaps, that has heralded a trend in anti-violence documentary filmmaking: the inclusion of perpetrator voices. Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated film "The Hunting Ground" featured a formerly-incarcerated young man who admitted to preying on drunk women who had been left unattended at fraternity parties; Leslee Udwin's BBC film "India's Daughter," based on the 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, captured one of the remorseless perpetrators on film; Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen's recent Netflix exclusive film "Audrie & Daisy," about two young women who were viciously harassed following their sexual assaults, involves two perpetrators whose participation in the film was part of the civil claim filed by Audrie Pott's parents after her death; Canadian film-maker Attiya Khan's forthcoming documentary "A Better Man" features Khan interviewing her abusive former partner. 

The inclusion of perpetrator voices in these films certainly does little to paint any individual in a flattering light; if anything, hearing their admissions of guilt or their lack of remorse first-hand works to demonstrate precisely how perpetrators think and act -- a rare glimpse for those who haven't experienced this kind of harm. In hearing these stories, we cannot shy away from the fact that people who do harm may also be the very people we interact with daily. Those who may be less readily inclined to believe survivors -- and there are many who do not, even those who are avowed feminists -- may finally listen when perpetrators show themselves not to be outliers. 

People who think they can "grab [women] by the pussy" are our friends. They are our co-workers, our family members, our childhood heroes, and, for Americans, your Republican nominee for President.

Survivors have been telling us this for years, but if we're not ready to listen, don't worry: the pussy-grabbers are telling us themselves.

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Image: Flickr/Paul Townsend

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