Election 2016

Prepare to Be Triggered: Sexual Assault Survivors Gird Themselves for Debate

It’s been a rough few weeks for those who bear the psychic scars of sexual transgression, and the final debate won’t be easy to watch.

Photo Credit: IoSonoUnaFotoCamera via Flickr/CC

If the second presidential debate of the 2016 campaign season was tough to watch for those who have been sexually assaulted, tonight’s debate in Las Vegas between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could be one epic trigger.

The October 9 debate, which took place two days after the Republican presidential nominee was revealed to have crudely boasted in 2005 about grabbing random women by their genitals, would have been hard to watch under any circumstances. Trump compounded the difficulty with a pre-debate stunt featuring four women who have accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual transgressions, including rape, and a rape survivor who accused Hillary Clinton of callous behavior in Clinton’s 1975 legal defense of the alleged perpetrator, who was convicted of a lesser charge. As brutal as that was to take in, tonight’s installment of the three-debate series could be worse.

The thing to understand about some sexual assault survivors is that their trauma often stems not only from the event itself, but in many cases, also from not being believed. (See Kali Holloway's AlterNet report.) Ever since the October 7 release of the now-infamous video footage of Trump talking to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush on a studio bus, a legion of women has come forward to accuse Trump of just the kind of behavior he was bragging about to Bush. Trump has gone on the offensive, telling the audiences at his raucous rallies that the women accusing him are not to be believed, despite corroborating evidence that has emanated from his own forked tongue. Why? Because according to him they’re not attractive enough to have warranted his attention.

Trump also, in 2005, boasted to radio host Howard Stern how, as part-owner of the Miss Universe beauty pageant franchise, he used his position to justify walking in on the dressing rooms of pageant contestants, some of them teenagers, when he knew they were unclothed. Several of those contestants have noted their personal experience of Trump’s self-proclaimed prerogative.

If Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace does his job properly as he moderates a debate that is truly historic, Trump will be challenged on all of these claims. Those watching who have endured sexual assault had best gird themselves for Trump’s counterassault on his accusers, and consequently, on anyone who has ever been assaulted and not believed, or even blamed.

A 1998 report by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in six American women was a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Using Trump’s parlance, women who have been grabbed “by the p*ssy” would not be part of that cohort. Neither would the beauty contestants he barged in on, or People magazine writer Natasha Stoyoff, who says Trump pinned her up against a wall at his Mar-a-Lago estate and shoved his tongue down her throat. Referring to Stoyoff, Trump said at an October 13 rally in West Palm Beach, Florida: “Take a look. You look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don't think so. I don't think so.”

Every time such words are spoken in national media, and embraced by hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters, many people who have been sexually assaulted—and who know firsthand the trauma of society's gaslighting when they speak their truth—revisit the shame visited upon them by that disbelief.

I know that feeling. In 1978, I was raped by an acquaintance and didn’t even bother to report it. The term “acquaintance rape” wasn’t even a thing then. I was in college, there was a party going on in my apartment—why would I even try to seek justice? And that’s not to mention all the other countless “lesser” transgressions that I, like some many women, have endured. The butt-grabbing by strangers on the street, the creep who rubs up on you in the subway, the otherwise sweet colleague who asks you for a hug, and then hugs a little too tightly for a little too long.

It’s been a rough few weeks, not just for me, but for probably half of the female U.S. population, and a portion of the men who bear the psychic scars of sexual transgression.

Tonight, as Bette Davis once said, could be a bumpy ride. If only it weren’t so historic, I’d be inclined not to watch. But it’s the final presidential debate in which the first woman nominee of a major political party will face off against a male opponent—one who boasts of his sexual hostility toward women. You bet I’ll be watching, and gritting my teeth through the night that follows.

Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.

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