A dozen women have come forward to accuse Donald Trump of sexually assaulting them in the ways he himself described in a leaked 2005 tape: "Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy."
This isn’t just "he said, she said" — Trump actually bragged, on tape, about committing sexual assault. That is what you call it when someone grabs someone and kisses her or touches her genitals without her consent; there’s no gray area here. And now a bunch of women are saying that those boasts are true.
It’s really tough to defend Trump on this, but he and his surrogates have certainly tried. And their defenses prove that they either don’t understand what sexual assault means and how consent works — or are willing to pretend they don’t for political purposes.
Either way, it promotes some dangerous misconceptions about consent and why it matters.
Trump and his surrogates have normalized and excused sexual assault in a terrifying way
Trump called the comments "locker room talk," which is wrong on a number of levels. It makes the trauma and violation of sexual assault seem like no big deal. Plus, professional athletes say that nobody actually talks this way in locker rooms.
And in defending Trump, some of his surrogates have gone even further: They denied that his leaked comments could even be described as sexual assault in the first place.
In an interview with the Weekly Standard after the second presidential debate, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said he wouldn’t "characterize" the behavior described in the tapes "as sexual assault":
SESSIONS: This was very improper language, and he's acknowledged that.
TWS: But beyond the language, would you characterize the behavior described in that [video] as sexual assault if that behavior actually took place?
SESSIONS: I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch. I don't know what he meant—
TWS: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that's not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don't know. It's not clear that he — how that would occur.
(If Sessions is confused how it would "occur" that grabbing a woman’s genitals is sexual assault, there are thousands of women explaining it on Twitter as we speak.)
Sean Spicer, chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, answered the Weekly Standard’s question this way: "I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer."
And in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday night, Trump’s campaign strategist Kellyanne Conway defended the candidate by saying that he didn’t literally use the words "sexual assault," and argued that the media should stop using that "unfortunate phrase":
"The term ‘locker room talk,’" Bash said to Conway. "You had the highest-ranking woman in Congress — Republican woman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers — blowing that off, and saying, ‘No, no, no, this is suggesting sexual assault.’"
"That’s a very unfortunate phrase, and people really should stop using it," Conway said.
"Why?" Bash said.
"Because I know him better, and I know better," Conway said.
"But it’s what he said," Bash said.
"He did not say the word ‘sexual assault,’" Conway said.
Once women actually started coming forward to accuse Trump of assault, Trump and his surrogates came up with all kinds of excuses to dismiss or explain away the women’s stories.
Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos listed the 24 most ridiculous excuses we’ve heard so far, including:
Not all planes have movable armrests.
She’s not good-looking enough to sexually assault.
None of them are reasonable women.
Perhaps you’ve heard of ISIS?
Consent is not a difficult concept. It’s also not optional when it comes to sex.
One of the most ridiculous responses to the allegations came from Rush Limbaugh, who defended Trump by dismissing the whole idea of "consent": "You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element," he said. "Do you know what it is? Consent. ... If the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police."
Limbaugh is being sarcastic, but he’s actually correct. Consent isn’t some deviant left-wing phenomenon — it’s the law.
The FBI now defines rape as "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." When it comes to sexual assault, like the unwanted kissing or groping that Trump is accused of, different states have different legal definitions of "consent" — but consent is always relevant.
Legal definitions can vary, but the fundamental concept of consent is incredibly simple: Does the other person actually want you to do the things you are doing to her?
When Trump says women "let" him do "anything," he’s not describing consensual activity. He’s describing, at best, touching a woman without encountering physical resistance from her — or using his power and influence to subtly coerce her into not resisting. Coercion is not consent either, from a legal perspective or a moral one.
There are a lot of reasons victims might not physically resist or even verbally object to unwanted sexual touching. They might simply have no time to react (time that Trump said he doesn’t give them: "Just kiss. I don’t even wait"). They might be confused or in shock. They might be afraid of physical violence, emotional abuse, or other repercussions (like being fired) if they don’t comply.
That’s why brute physical force doesn’t determine whether an attack counts as sexual assault. Unwanted and nonconsensual touching does.
Trump’s surrogates don’t understand how sexual assault actually affects victims
After the new allegations started to surface, senior Trump adviser A.J. Delgado told Chris Hayes on MSNBC: "If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time."
But if you know anything about sexual assault, you know that for many victims, the "reasonable" course of action seems not to come forward at all, or to only come forward once others have done the same.
Victims who go public are often disbelieved and publicly smeared. They face personal and professional repercussions if their attacker is a powerful man or works in their field. And pursuing justice in court can be a huge drain on time, money, and emotional energy.
So it’s no wonder if Trump’s accusers waited years to come forward. It took hearing their attacker deny what he’d done to them on national TV to make them want to spring into action, and it took knowing that they weren’t alone to make them feel empowered to do so.
This plays into a broader trend of how some Republicans treat sexual assault
Trump’s surrogates seem to be attempting to redefine sexual assault in order to defend him. But it’s also not the first time Republicans have tried to redefine rape for political purposes.
In recent years, it’s become a trend for Republicans to minimize the role of consent in rape by adding the word "legitimate" (think Todd Akin) or "forcible" (as a way to narrow the possible rape exceptions in anti-abortion legislation).
Similarly, it’s also become popular in conservative circles to mock anti-rape activists on college campuses for supposedly trying to "expand" the definition of sexual assault — when all that’s happening is acknowledging that sexual assault means unwanted sexual touching of any kind, and that rape and sexual assault are defined by acting without consent.
Our cultural status quo on sexual assault is ignorant, wrong, and harmful — and upholding that status quo is what the term "rape culture" means. It means that the seriousness of sexual assault is minimized and victims are disbelieved. It means that in the popular imagination, "rape" is only what happens when a stranger jumps a woman in an alley with a gun.
When it comes to policy and politics, this set of attitudes about rape seems to be more predominant on the right — whether for political reasons (like passing harsher abortion restrictions or defending Trump) or cultural reasons (like valuing traditional gender norms).
But most sexual assaults don’t involve being jumped in a dark alley by a stranger with a gun. They involve unwanted, nonconsensual advances from someone known to the victim — just like what Trump described. And pretending otherwise is a shameful disservice to survivors.