Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had a heated exchange with Trump supporter and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on Tuesday about Trump’s flagging poll numbers, and about the women who have accused Trump of sexually assaulting them.
When Kelly suggested the two things were related, Gingrich complained that the media devoted more coverage to the Trump tapes than to controversy over Hillary Clinton’s speeches.
And when Kelly argued that it would be a big news story "if Trump is a sexual predator," Gingrich completely lost it.
"He’s not a sexual predator!" Gingrich exploded, ignoring the "if" part of Kelly’s statement. "I’m sick and tired of people like you using language that’s inflammatory [and] that’s not true!"
Gingrich kept pushing Kelly from there, urging her to repeat the words "Bill Clinton sexual predator." He accused Kelly of being "fascinated with sex" to the exclusion of public policy.
It was ugly. But it was also very typical of the twisted rhetoric we’ve heard about sexual assault from Trump and his surrogates lately, as more women come forward to allege that Trump did to them exactly what he was caught on tape boasting about doing — groping or kissing them without their consent.
This is about crime, not "sex"
Imagine if Kelly had been discussing embezzlement, and Gingrich accused her of being "fascinated with money." That’s the level of absurdity we’re dealing with here.
"Sex" is a consensual act between two people. Sex can be a source of scandal, of course — as the thrice-married, infamously philandering Gingrich should be aware of. But we’re not talking about consensual affairs. We’re talking about alleged sex crimes.
Legally, it can depend on the circumstances and jurisdiction — but generally, it is sexual assault to grab someone and kiss them, or grab their private parts, without their consent. Morally, it should be a no-brainer that doing this to another human being is wrong and abhorrent.
But again and again, we’ve heard Trump conflate sexual assault, which is a crime, with sex, which is an act of fun, pleasure, connection, and/or love between consenting people.
But those comments would only make sense if you think of what Trump did as "sex" instead of "sexual assault." Guys in locker rooms brag about girls they’ve slept with, not girls they’ve attacked. Attractiveness is relevant for potential sex partners, not potential targets.
Gingrich told Kelly that there are "two parallel universes" in this election. He was talking about the polls, which currently show Clinton with a substantial lead. But he might as well have been talking about the funhouse-mirror version of reality that he and Trump are occupying — where sexual assault is about sex, and where bullying a woman on camera while shifting blame for sexual assault is "amazing":
Donald Trump: "Congratulations, Newt on last night. That was an amazing interview." pic.twitter.com/9WriTNG3is— CSPAN (@cspan) October 26, 2016
This is about deeds, not words
Gingrich balking at the phrase "sexual predator" calls to mind Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who said in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash that the media should stop using the phrase "sexual assault":
"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.
Trump’s surrogates and supporters have relentlessly focused on the language Trump used, not the deeds he’s accused of committing. (Using Bill Clinton’s alleged deeds as a distraction from Trump’s, though, is somehow fair game.)
For his surrogates, it’s about Trump’s "lewd" language. It’s about the "words" he used.
Many people, especially social conservatives, consider it "lewd" to use explicit language to describe sex. But to call Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy" comments "lewd," and to only apologize for lewdness, once again conflates sex with sexual assault — and obscures the reasons why sexual assault is morally wrong.
Confusing sexual assault with sex is one reason why victims of assault are consistently shamed in our culture. If any sex outside of marriage is shameful, and if talking about sex is also shameful, then treating sexual assault as a special kind of shame can almost feel superfluous.
Gingrich and those who share his views aren’t used to a world where women are allowed to speak openly about sex, much less sexual assault. And that’s where outrage twists into victim-blaming.
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.
And it means that talking about sexual assault is somehow worse than committing it.