I’ll confess it only half-registered when I first heard about the "hot mic" recording that would become known as the Trump Tape. Anyone who didn’t know by now that Donald Trump was abusive to women hadn't been paying attention. But also: Trump had already done so many jaw-droppingly hateful and horrible things, and suffered only a political scratch here and bruise there as a consequence. Nothing had ever pierced his leathery orange skin.
We live in a culture where judges decline to punish convicted rapists (at least if they’re white) for fear of hurting their poor feelings or something. Why would bragging about violating women suddenly become the metal spatula to Donald’s Teflon?
Yet it seems to be just that. Many prominent Republicans have rescinded their endorsements of Trump. Polls taken since the recording came out show him losing significant support from voters. Several smart folks have suggested that racism and white supremacy are a big part of the reason, and I defy you to find the lie in what they’ve written. But if I may be permitted to be a bit boastful, I think I had something to do with it, too.
I’ve spent the past decade preaching the gospel of affirmative consent. It looks like people are finally starting to get the message.
I’ve been working to make sexual consent part of the national conversation since 2007, when Jessica Valenti and I published the book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Since then, I’ve preached the gospel of affirmative consent everywhere I could elbow it into a conversation: on countless college campuses, on TV and radio, in essays like this one, even at parties and family gatherings (to the occasional dismay of those gathered).
I’ve argued with both men and women who say it will kill the mood to engage in the overt communication required to ensure that their sex partners are actively consenting (to which I reply that even in the internet age, the phone sex industry is still profitable for a reason). I’ve written angry letters to the editor when news outlets call rape charges a "sex scandal" (rape isn’t sex) and blocked countless mouth breathers on Twitter who accuse me of outlawing male heterosexuality (if your masculinity depends on being able to violate my body, it’s time to get a new one).
Mostly, though, the people I talk with about affirmative consent are relieved. Women whisper to me after my talks, telling me how desperately they wished they’d gotten the message sooner that sex could be for them, on their terms, and that their boundaries didn’t have to be "reasonable," they just had to be respected. Survivors tell me how healing it is to finally place the blame and shame where it belongs: on the perpetrators of assault, not the victims.
One of my favorite notes came from a young man who’d heard my message at his freshman orientation. He wrote to say that as a relatively inexperienced guy, he was stressed about what the sexual pressures would be like at college. Affirmative consent reassured him that any good partner will meet him where he’s at.
The consent message has started to break through into our cultural consciousness. When I first started out, almost no one in my audiences had even heard the phrase "yes means yes." Now when I’m speaking in states like California and New York, which have mandated affirmative consent standards on all college campuses, we’re starting from a different part of the conversation. We can go further and deeper. But there are still plenty of places where I’m met with blank stares or outright hostility. The pace of change is glacial.
So when I saw that CNN, an outlet that had allowed Don Lemon to ask one of Bill Cosby’s victims why she didn’t literally bite Cosby’s penis, was plainly and correctly describing Trump’s boasts as sexual assault, I felt a certain swell of pride that I and all the anti-violence activists I’ve been working alongside all these years had finally, maybe, changed the conversation just a little bit.
The past week and a half has borne out that feeling, with more outlets than not getting the issue just right: This is not a scandal about "dirty" words or "lewd" behavior. It’s about men who feel entitled to violate women’s bodies.
The Trump accusations are still crushing, especially for assault survivors
But that pride has been no match for the crushing avalanche of grief and anger. We can’t seem to get through a single 24-hour news cycle without a sickening new revelation or victim-blaming excuse. One of Trump’s alleged victims has been so targeted by abuse and threats that she says she is planning to flee the country.
Meanwhile, a second drum beats in parallel: My female friends write status updates, telling long-buried stories that still throb with pain and rage. Michelle Obama nearly chokes up describing how men degrade and dehumanize us. Strangers on the Twitter hashtag #NotOK tell their own tales of violation. We all have them, it seems, a universal badge of womanhood.
I’m no exception. Once, a man I knew crawled into my bed while I was sleeping. That night I learned what it feels like to be reduced from a sovereign human to an instrument for someone else’s use. That was more than 20 years ago, but the past week has awoken wounds I thought had gone dormant. I’m spacey and forgetful, sporadically sleepless and overtaken with waves of nausea. My partner’s touch feels suspect.
The other night I listened to a news report detail the day’s fresh allegations and just cried — cried for those women and what he had done to them, how I knew they would be punished for telling the truth. I cried from impotent anger at the fact that I can still be so hurt by a decision made decades ago by a guy I barely knew. I cried because the country’s men would still proudly elect Trump if left to their own devices. I cried for every survivor who’s done the grueling emotional labor of telling her story in public these past weeks, or reliving it in private. I cried because it feels like women have been doing this Sisyphean labor forever, the work of endlessly healing ourselves from violence that just keeps coming. The work of shaping our reality into publicly digestible narratives, amulets we hope will be powerful enough to shake the scales from men’s eyes, to make them see us as human, as equal, as sovereign.
I am tired to my bones of the need for these stories, of the existence of these stories. Women in the US have been publicly speaking out against men’s sexual violation of us since African-American women confronted Congress about being gang-raped by a white mob in 1866. In recent years, we seem to have a National Dialogue About Violence Against Women at least annually. It was Brock Turner most recently, but before that Daniel Holtzclaw, Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Elliot Rodger, Steubenville, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen. Survivors tell their stories. The country gnashes its teeth and wrings its hands. And not enough changes.
This week has felt different in magnitude if not kind. It shouldn’t have taken a sexual predator getting this close to the presidency to level up the conversation. But since it did, I want it to work. Naming assault correctly is not enough. I want men to change, to wake up, to call each other out and hold each other responsible. I want the entire culture to once and for all agree that women are fully human, entitled to sovereignty and safety in our bodies. Please let us rest from this terrible testifying. Please let this be the last time.
Jaclyn Friedman is the creator of two books, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, and What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Friedman hosts Unscrewed, a podcast exploring paths to sexual liberation, and is at work on a book by the same name.