All three men are prominent media figures who have allegedly been getting away with sexual harassment or sexual assault for decades — until now. In 2016, Cosby was charged with sexual assault, Ailes was forced to resign as the CEO of Fox News, and Trump's presidential campaign started to implode as women started coming forward to accuse him of groping or kissing them without their consent.
There’s a reason that all of this is happening now. Our understanding of consent and sexual assault is evolving. More people understand the concept of “rape culture,” which explains all of the big and small ways in which our culture normalizes, enables, and even encourages sexual violence. As more high-profile cases of sexual misconduct emerge, more victims are willing to speak out because they realize they’re not alone — and because it seems like more people are willing to listen to them and believe them.
It feels like a sea change, and a badly needed one at that. An old, awful power dynamic seems to finally be shifting, and we’re witnessing the last stand of the “good old boys” who used their power to abuse women with impunity and trust that everybody else would look the other way.
But while these are encouraging signs, we shouldn’t start writing rape culture’s obituary just yet. Our society still struggles with a lot of toxic ideas about how men should behave — ideas that can actually make sexual assault seem normal or expected. And this isn’t just a generational quirk of the “good old boys.”
Younger generations may be more liberal than older ones in general, but research suggests that they’re not necessarily more progressive on issues related to gender equality and sexism. While there’s been some progress on these issues, the sexism that remains can actually be more dangerous because people will be less prepared to believe it really exists, and thus less equipped to deal with it.
Misogyny and attitudes that normalize rape are still alive and well today, among young and old alike, and they won’t die out on their own without a nasty fight.
Are the kids really all right?
In a Harvard Business Review article this year, Andrea Kramer and Alton B. Harris asked: “Are US millennial men just as sexist as their dads?” The answer, they fear, is likely yes.
Sure, surveys find that millennials say they see men and women as equals, or that they don’t believe there are any inherently male or female roles in society. But when you drill down further, their attitudes are less equitable.
In a 2013 Pew survey of Americans, millennial men were the most likely demographic group to say that all necessary changes have already been made to bring about gender equality in the workplace. (Millennial women and boomer women, meanwhile, were the groups most skeptical of that claim.) Implicit bias against women and their intellectual abilities is still strong among millennials; a study of university science classes found that men consistently rated their male peers as more knowledgeable even than better-performing women.
It does seem that millennial men are more interested in an equitable marriage than previous generations, which is encouraging. But there’s still a pretty big gender gap in terms of who expects what, another survey found:
A glimmer of hope was found in the huge survey of Harvard Business School MBAs in a 2014 HBR article, which found that Millennial men were more likely than Gen X and Boomer men to predict that their wives would have equal careers, and less likely to do the majority of the child care. But that hope vanished when the researchers found the gap between what Millennial men and Millennial women believed was still wide: “Whereas three-quarters of Millennial women anticipate that their careers will be at least as important as their partners,” they reported, “half the men in their generation expect that their own careers will take priority.” The gap was similar when it came to child care responsibilities. Fewer than half of Millennial women believed they would handle most of the child care, but two-thirds of their male peers believed their wives would do so.
It’s not that there are no reasons to hope things will be better in the next generation. There are definitely some encouraging signs.
“I’ve been working with teens since 1997, and I’ve seen a huge shift,” said Dani Bostick, a trained counselor and advocate who specializes in child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and trauma counseling. “It used to be, ‘No doesn't mean no.’ Now I definitely see that young people understand consent is important.”
“I’m seeing many more examples of younger men who are much more forceful in saying, ‘That really is not okay, you really can't talk like that around me,” said Rus Funk, an advocate who works on engaging men to prevent violence. “I'm 50, and when I was a high school athlete, the ‘locker room talk’ that happened in my locker room — there was no policing going on of each other. I suspect in a lot of locker rooms now, there is more of that.”
So there’s hope that most young people won’t listen when Trump dismisses his “grab ’em by the pussy” comments as “locker room talk.” But shifting attitudes about not just rape, but also rape culture and the toxic ideas that feed into it, will likely take longer and take more concerted effort than we would hope. And it will be that much harder if, as many young people seem to do today, we assume that equality has been achieved and that most of the hard work has already been done.
“I think we're making progress. I want to think that. But I don't know yet,” Funk said. “The data isn't real supportive, in that the incidence of sexual assault and domestic violence is not necessarily different for this generation.”
Trump’s toxic masculinity is more common than we’d probably like to admit
“As a father who is doing my level best to raise a son who is sensitive and kind and caring, to have somebody like Trump in such a prominent role has made my job so much harder,” Funk said. “This is a bad environment for our daughters, but it’s equally problematic for our sons.”
Trump’s behavior, Funk said, is a classic example what advocates call “toxic masculinity” — the idea that to be a “real man” is to be sexually aggressive, unemotional, tough, and even violent, and to view women as objects to be conquered and dominated. It’s an attitude that relies heavily on ideas about traditional gender roles, and warps those ideas into something even more twisted.
We see toxic masculinity in our culture when “women are depicted as submissive, passive, and meek, while men are viewed as strong, dominant, and virile,” Mellissa Withers, a professor at the University of Southern California Institute for Global Health and an expert in gender-based violence, told Vox. “These norms serve to reinforce sexual violence against women. Men’s sexual violence toward women isn’t perceived as deviant if society values male sexual prowess and aggressive sexual behavior.”
Research, such as this study led by Sarah Gervais at the University of Nebraska and published in the Psychology of Violence journal, suggests that sexual violence is strongly linked to viewing women as sexual objects — views that Trump very clearly holds, and is arguably normalizing due to his prominence in the public eye.
Trump’s dismissal of his “grab ’em by the pussy” comments as “locker room talk” is incredibly damaging, Bostick said. “When it’s brought up in a joking way — alpha masculinity, just having fun — it's normalizing crime,” she said. “People like to make excuses for this toxic masculinity and say, ‘This is what men do’ … but it normalizes an attitude that is the underpinning of rape.”
One disturbing 2014 study led by Sarah Edwards of the University of North Dakota showed these attitudes in action among young men. Edwards grants that the study had a small sample size and more research needs to be done, but the findings were still troubling: Nearly a third (32 percent) of the 73 college men surveyed said they would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if ‘‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.’’ But when the same question used the word “rape” instead of “force a woman to sexual intercourse,” 13.6 percent said yes.
The difference between the two groups of men, Edwards found, had to do with their views on sexism and masculinity. Unsurprisingly, the men who were fine with the word “rape” had actively hostile views towards women. But the men who endorsed rape without calling it rape tended more toward “benevolent sexism” (gender bias towards women that seems complimentary, but is still sexist). In addition, they held “callous” sexual attitudes, which the study described as viewpoints that “objectify women and expect men to exhibit sexual dominance.”
Benevolent sexism is typically tied to traditional views of gender. And as outlined above, when it comes to how today’s young men view women’s broader role in society, the evidence is mixed.
We still tolerate a lot of bad behavior toward women before we finally say enough is enough
If you ask most people whether they, personally, are sexist, they will say no. If you ask most people whether they think rape and sexual assault are bad, they will say yes.
But in practice, our culture still has a dismayingly high tolerance for sexism. It also has a pretty high bar for what really counts as rape or sexual assault, and for what it takes to really believe someone who says it’s happened to them.
There’s a reason that Trump’s infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape dominated the news for days after it came out. Trump had bragged on a hot mic about sexual assault, using incredibly crude language to boot. It was too brazen, too shocking, too in-your-face to ignore. It was a veritable smoking gun of sexism.
At the same time, it had been obvious for months — years, if you’d been paying attention long enough — that Trump had terrible views on women. And it wasn’t just his views; he’d also been accused in the past of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. (Allegations he and his campaign have repeatedly denied.)
But before that smoking gun of a tape went off, even Trump’s fairly obvious sexism wasn’t enough to convince some Republicans to withhold their support for his candidacy. And for some in the media, only something as blatant as that tape could inspire as much wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s issues with women as, say, Clinton’s emails.
In Bill Cosby’s case, women had been accusing him of sexual assault for decades. But nobody really paid attention until comedian Hannibal Buress called him out for it in 2014, after which public allegations against Cosby piled up into the dozens. And for some people, even 60 women weren’t enough to convince them that Cosby could possibly be guilty.
Even though we’ve collectively agreed that sexism is bad, we still haven’t actually managed to get rid of sexism — especially the kind of sexism that underlies our assumptions of what actually constitutes rape and sexual assault. We have evidence of that in the University of North Dakota study about “rape” versus “force,” and also in what happens every day when victims come forward publicly, only to be automatically disbelieved.
“There is clearly misconception and misinformation about what ‘counts’ as sexual assault,” Bostick said. “People sort of make up their own rules for what counts as sexual assault and what doesn't, and what might be ‘real rape’ and what's not. It’s somewhat of a hierarchy. If it's a stranger in an alley, that's definitely a rape.” But most sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman knows, and the key element is consent, not violent overpowering.
In recent years, it’s become a trend for Republicans in particular 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). And it’s become popular in conservative circles to mock anti-rape activists on college campuses for supposedly trying to "expand" the definition of sexual assault. These activists are really just pushing for acknowledgment that sexual assault means unwanted sexual touching of any kind, and that rape and sexual assault are defined by acting without consent.
Part of what’s behind this is sexism, Bostick said. But limiting “sexual assault” to an abstract evil that only happens to other people, and is only committed by people you don’t know, is also a “common defense mechanism,” she said. “The alternative is to accept that this is something that as many as a quarter of women, and many boys or men, experience. That’s a horrible thing to come to terms with.”
If there’s a silver lining in the public mess over Trump and sexual assault, Bostick said, it’s that it will encourage more people to talk about it — and force more people to realize how common it really is. These days, Bostick said, most public discussion about sexual assault is in the context of campus rape — which doesn’t affect everyone, and is thus easily marginalized or ignored.
Trump, on the other hand, is impossible to ignore. He’s one of the most-covered figures in America right now. Even with other high-profile sexual assault cases hitting the headlines this year, from Bill Cosby to Brock Turner, Bostick said Trump has somehow made it feel “more individual and more personal” to many people, and opened up more conversations about the topic.
But Funk worries that we have “short attention spans,” and that on November 9, the conversation will shift to something else and this moment will be forgotten. Either way, he said, it will take a lot more open dialogue and a lot of actively holding each other accountable in every space we can manage — from the workplace, to houses of worship, to anywhere else that people gather and associate with one another — to combat misogyny and violence against women.
“Keeping women safe in their relationships is a community responsibility, not solely the responsibility of police and the courts,” Funk said.
And the community members who most need to step up are men.
“Many men were as horrified by Donald Trump’s behavior as women,” Withers said. “Men can, and desire to, be engaged to oppose the definitions of masculinity that reinforce sexual aggression and violence against women.”
Instead of toxic masculinity, Withers said, we need to promote “positive masculinity” — and acknowledge that a key part of manhood is “to be loving, nurturing, respectful, and supportive fathers and partners.”