During Sunday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump repeatedly dodged moderator Anderson Cooper’s attempts to call him out for bragging about sexual assault in leaked comments that surfaced on Friday. Trump dismissed the comments as “locker room talk,” pivoted to talking about ISIS, and talked about his “tremendous respect for women” before finally saying that, no, he had never actually done the things he talked about on the tape.
But in defending Trump after the debate, some of his surrogates went a lot further than just changing the subject or denying that Trump actually did the things he said he did. They denied that his comments could even be described as sexual assault in the first place.
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 that 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 Trump 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.
Let’s be clear: “Sexual assault” is absolutely the right way to classify the actions Trump describes on the leaked tapes that have thrown his campaign into chaos.
It’s possible that Trump was boasting to Billy Bush in 2005 about something that didn’t really happen. But when Trump claims he sometimes “just start[s] kissing” a woman without warning — or that he “can do anything” to women because he’s a star, including “grab ’em by the pussy” — he is describing 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.
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.