Election 2016

Trump as Trigger: How His Misogyny and Hatred Are Literally Causing Millions Mental and Physical Pain

Trump's runoff of fear and anxiety is affecting many Americans.

Photo Credit: Boss Tweed/Flickr

According to a recently leaked video from 2005, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump enjoys boasting about his regular practice of grabbing women “by the pussy.” Despite this revelation, Trump remains in striking distance of the presidency. A post-leak Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Hillary Clinton leading her opponent by a mere 4 points. An overwhelming number of Republican voters have expressed ambivalence about Trump’s remarks. But Trump’s words have resonated far beyond the circle of giggling, goading sycophants who surrounded him on that Access Hollywood bus.

For survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, the incident, far from the first example of Trump’s vile and violent sexism, caused yet another reopening of wounds only partially sutured by time. A 24-hour news cycle filled with Trump’s advocacy of sexual predation, disgusting misogynist remarks and allegations of sexual harassment and assault upon numerous women, as well as his hateful attacks on people of color, immigrants, the disabled and many others, have forced millions of survivors—many of whom already suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—to mentally revisit the trauma of their abuse.

“When you ‘grab’ something, you tend to do it by force—you're not asking for permission,” Adrienne White, vice-president of finance for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, who wrote an article about her own sexual assault and the impact of Trump’s callous rhetoric, told me. “I heard those words and then I started thinking about the woman he was talking about violating. Then that led me to [think about] my own violation...I started crying, and then I felt this helplessness. This man is just talking carelessly about grabbing somebody's sexuality and it's not right. I know it's impacted me personally, deeply personally, and perhaps it's impacting somebody else.”

“I was brought back to that day,” Sarah Fader, whose PTSD motivated her to found mental health advocacy group Stigma Fighters, told me about hearing the Trump tape. “Having this person who is a candidate to run our country say that literally nauseated me. Also, I thought about all the survivors I know, friends of mine that I'm close with. It was just so dehumanizing.”

Survivor and sex educator Christina Tesoro told me that the toxicity of the last 18 months of the election season have taken a cumulative toll on her emotional health. “I start feeling really angry and then I get sad and drained,” she said. “Underneath that there's fear, and the fear is really exhausting because when you're that afraid, you can't really have space for anything else. It just becomes very draining and very tiring. I have a lot of anxiety dreams lately, then waking up and not feeling rested. I have a back injury and in the past couple of months it's been getting worse. So there's this sort of physical tension and pain that comes with it.”

The word “trigger” describes actions, words, sights or sounds that lead a person who has previously experienced trauma to reexperience the emotions of the original event. PTSD sufferers often exist in a state of constant hypervigilance, a sort of perpetual embodied state of red alert, and triggers can provoke a range of responses, from fight-or-flight, to an immobilizing freeze reaction. Triggers are highly individualized, and differ from person to person.

“They are situations, words [or] visualizations where a person might go back to the same kind of reactions that they once experienced when they were traumatized,” Gail Wyatt, a sex therapist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, told me. “These triggers can be visual, they can be tactile, they can be auditory. Aromas or smells can be triggers; they can be perceived if someone looks like the person [who caused the original trauma]...Anything that might remind a person of that situation will take them back to a feeling of being terrorized and very fearful all over again.”

“Symptoms of PTSD result when a person has been frightened to the degree where they frequently have no words,” Dr. Wyatt adds. “They have no behavior, no response that they know of that they can use to stop whatever is happening, that is frightening them and terrorizing them. This is the body’s way of registering to an individual that whatever they’re experiencing is really beyond what the body can process. The body frequently goes back to those same symptoms and those same kinds of reactions with other experiences that may be similar to what they went through, or even where the same language might be used,” as in the case of Trump’s vivid descriptions of sexual assault.

Domestic violence and sexual assault have a lasting impact on the lives of an astounding number of Americans. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a quarter of all girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. An estimated 10 million women and men experience intimate partner physical violence each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Women and female-identified people make up a disproportionate number of survivors, with many having experienced some form of abuse beginning in childhood.

“I would say that personally in my life, and also in the lives of most of my female-identified friends, as well as my clients, it's actually the rare case where someone hasn't had some kind of experience of being sexually harassed or assaulted,” Rebecca Ross, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City and teaching faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, told me. “All female-bodied people, including non-binary and trans women who come into my practice, have some experience of sexual trauma.”

Sexual harassment, abuse and violence exist along a continuum, from the everyday fatigue, annoyance and anxiety caused by shouted advances on the street, to unwanted touching, groping and leering in social spaces, to uncomfortable office jokes or inappropriate “compliments,” to nonconsensual sexual contact. There are countless points that lie in between each of those markers.

While not every woman who was offended by Trump’s words, or the overall misogyny of his campaign, was necessarily triggered by them (in the most explicit sense), his remarks have dredged up dark, painful, and in some cases, buried memories for many who heard them. I was reminded of a group of drunken teenage boys who, on a crowded street during Carnival celebrations in Sitges, Spain grabbed me in the exact way Trump brags about before ducking into the throngs again, their laughter echoing back at me. I felt too stunned, humiliated and powerless to tell anyone, including the friends I’d gotten separated from, when we were reunited minutes after that horrible moment.

Jennifer Conti, writing at Slate, describes how at age 10 and later at age 30, two different men “reached between my legs and squeezed.” In Adrienne White’s piece for the Root, she writes about a man she once dated who “forc[ed] himself on me while I cried profusely.” On the heels of Trump’s remarks, author Kelly Oxford put out a call to women on Twitter asking them to recount their first (because there is never just one) recollection of sexual abuse. She estimates receiving 10 million responses over the next several hours.

In the face of all that, there’s this: If only men voted, as FiveThirtyEight points out on an overwhelmingly red map, Trump would win by a landslide. (It would be worthwhile to see those numbers further broken down, because I guarantee you LGBT and men of color are not voting for Trump in droves.) Many who are not PTSD sufferers share the feelings of dread and fear this campaign season has elicited. Though there may be no name or clinical diagnosis for these feelings, they are no less real. Whether Trump wins or loses, it’s unlikely those emotions, viscerally felt by so many members of vulnerable communities who already live with heightened levels of fear and anxiety, will suddenly disappear after election day.

“This is a guy running for president of the United States caught on tape saying he's basically fine with sexually assaulting women,” Jean Kim, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, says. “That totally ruins women's sense of safety. This is someone who is running for public office, which is usually considered a position of authority and trust, and someone saying this kind of stuff that makes every woman's sense of safety feel threatened and dismissed. It's legitimizing that behavior to have someone in his position talking about this stuff and even worse that he's acting dismissive in reference about it. That's why it's so horrifying for women.”

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s campaign team is full of surrogates who have defended sexual harassment and aggression. In 2013, Donald Trump Jr. admonished those who don’t want to deal with sexual harassment on the job by saying, “[I]f you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, then you don’t belong in the workforce.” This is a morally reprehensible stance, as well as tacit encouragement to abusers to violate others’ rights and break anti-harassment policies and laws. It also ignores the reality of how damaging sexually harassing, abusive and violent behaviors are. The bait-and-switch blame game Trump Jr. is playing is classic gaslighting, a technique that flips the script in order to make victims of abuse doubt the validity of their experiences. It’s a cornerstone of his father’s campaign, a tool employed every time Trump denies having said things he said years, days or even moments before.

Trump Jr.’s attitude also underscores why most survivors keep their stories to themselves. Too often, when survivors publicly accuse their attackers, their stories are minimized, denied or dismissed, or they’re blamed for being hypersensitive. This adds to the trauma survivors experience, saddling them with guilt and shame that should belong to their attackers.

Sarah Fader talked about the moment during the second presidential debate, just days after the Trump tape emerged, when she watched the candidate dismiss his words as “locker room talk.”

“In that moment, it was like he was saying my pain is not valid,” she told me. “I think that brought me back to being in an abusive relationship and trying to tell people about it, and no one believed me. Here is this very obvious fact, right? He's admitting [he said these things] and at the same time, blowing it off. It made me think of my personal experience, or knowing survivors that tried to talk about being raped and having their families say you're imagining things."

Louise Holmes-Ackerman (not her real name), a veteran political journalist, suffers from PTSD related to sexual assault, as well as fibromyalgia, a chronic muscular pain condition that can be exacerbated by stress. Neither condition has previously kept her from entering spaces where “you don't feel so safe” in an effort to report on necessary stories. But she says the mounting toxicity of Trump’s rhetoric has triggered both illnesses, resulting in a slow build of pain that recently became overwhelming. The tipping point came when Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said it was “a stretch” to define as sexual assault what Trump was bragging about doing in the 2005 Access Hollywood video.

“I was already feeling the weight of the ongoing misogyny of this campaign, not to mention all of the other hatreds that have been advanced. My breathing became labored, I felt very anxious, I really just felt—I hate to admit this, because it’s a really gendered term— but I felt like a wuss,” Holmes-Ackerman says. “Why don't we come forward? It's because we're not believed, or we expect not to be believed. If we are believed, we're told it's not a big deal. We're being babies. It's oh, grow up. It's boys will be boys."

“I've been a tough girl all my life, and I like to be perceived that way. But I just had to get to a safe space,” Holmes-Ackerman added. “My plans had been to be in a different city, and I was looking forward to that. Instead, within two hours after that happened, I was on the train home to my apartment, and determined not to leave my apartment until I was ready.”

Forget Trump Jr. and every other defender of sexual harassment and assault. The triggering impact of sexual harassment and assault isn’t a problem of fragility or hypersensitivity on the part of those who are traumatized. In the face of language that recalls their trauma, survivors and others, especially those suffering PTSD, experience a neurological triggering that is out of their control.

“It’s very well documented that when thinking is dominated by right-brain or subcortical activity, it is not, it cannot be, logical,” Vivian Dent, a Bay Area clinical psychologist, says. “It’s associative. It’s emotional. And it is associative along emotional and triggered pathways. So, a body sensation will call up other times similar body sensations have been felt, for instance. And in trauma, left-brain processes, which are the ones that allow us to think in a way that is logical, sequential and coherent—that is, this came before this, this caused that...all of that is left-brain processes. The more trauma is active, the more those are quite literally offline.”

Trump has a history of demeaning women that far precedes his presidential aspirations, as evidenced by the Access Hollywood footage currently in heavy rotation. He has continued to offer evidence of his toxic masculinity and sexism on the campaign trail, calling women names, insulting their appearance, belittling them at every turn. Following criticism of his behavior in a debate when many said he had stalked opponent Hillary Clinton across the stage, Trump defended himself by taking a jab at her appearance and figure. “When she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn't impressed," he told supporters at a recent rally in North Carolina.

number of women—for now, the number sits at 12—have accused Trump of rape or sexual assault dating back to the 1970s. The candidate’s first accuser was ex-wife Ivana, who later recanted through Trump’s lawyers. A federal lawsuit is pending filed by a woman who says Trump violently raped her at age 13. The candidate’s response has generally been to suggest these women weren’t hot enough for him to assault. By the time you read this, there’s a very good chance yet another woman will have stepped up with a new claim of sexual abuse or violation.

If you have been following this campaign with even a modicum of interest, there was nothing particularly revelatory about the Access Hollywood tape, not only because of Trump’s notorious misogyny, but because of the hateful stances he has taken toward numerous groups throughout his candidacy. Trump has espoused racist and misogynist ideas from the moment he descended Trump Towers’ golden escalator last June to deliver a speech criminalizing Mexicans. His campaign has been fueled by anti-black and other racisms, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and anti-Semitism. His base of racists and various other assorted bigots love him for speaking their thoughts aloud.

Among many establishment Republicans—those who complain Trump stands in opposition to party virtues—it took a video in which Trump explicitly objectifies a cisgender white actress to put a dent in the camel’s back. With their previous inaction, recent Trump defectors who stood by idly or supported Trump even as he insulted group after historically marginalized group show what little regard this country has for those who fall into those groups. Their refusal to fully acknowledge or speak out against the violence and racism that has defined Trump's campaign ignores and simultaneously amplifies how Trump’s bigoted words have served to trigger members of those populations.

“He has continuously and blatantly denigrated these groups day in and day out without really being taken to task for for it,” George Washington University's Dr. Kim stated. “It shows how our society is set up still. Why did he get a free pass all this time for saying all those other horrible, nasty things, but all of the sudden this is where everyone draws the line in terms of public outcry? It shows that we still have a ways to go in terms of valuing other identities and groups as equally valid and important as, in this case, white women.”

“Why aren't you as upset for Mexicans who are being called rapists?” Christina Tesoro wonders, rhetorically. “It's infuriating, but I generally don't expect anything different. It makes me really scared for my community because I'm in a queer, majority people-of-color community. My mom is an immigrant. She came here from Peru. Seeing the way he talks and the things he says, and then seeing people on a large scale agree with that, just makes me scared about the people I care about. What is their life going to be like? What is my life going to be like, if this is a possible future?”

For those with intersectional identities—for example, women and LGBT people of color—the negative impact of Trump’s rhetoric is doubled. These attacks hit on multiple fronts, and their consequences are manifold.

“In the case of women of color, you’ve got gender discrimination, and you have racial-ethnic discrimination. In the case of a person whose sexual orientation is not what [Trump’s supporters] want it to be, you have that additional discrimination to be lived,” UCLA's Dr. Wyatt says. “When these individuals are targeted, they’re not just looking at it from the standpoint of color or gender, they’re looking at it from the standpoint of two or three or four different things about them that are treated as not acceptable, less than, not worthy of being included. These are harmful assumptions that people begin to internalize, and grow up with, thinking that something is wrong or deficient about them. So there’s nothing more dangerous and damning than the conversations we’ve heard in the media over the last 18 months. We couldn’t do more to harm whatever progress America had in promoting itself as a united country than we have had in this election period.”

While the election has been particularly trying for countless Americans, it has also inadvertently opened up a space for survivors and others to push back and speak out about sexual violence. Kelly Oxford's #Notokay Twitter trend is one example. Just a few days ago, more than 3,000 sexual abuse survivors took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post asking Republican leaders to “denounce Trump’s words.” Hillary Clinton has called out Trump's misogyny and pointed out his racist and sexist comments directed at former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. In a speech last Thursday, Michelle Obama stated that witnessing “a candidate for president of the United States [brag] about sexually assaulting women,” has “shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”

Those are positive things, but there is much more to be said and done. The discussion has largely focused on white women’s stories and experiences of sexual denigration, which isn’t enough. It’s critical that the dialogue expand to include the experiences of women of color and others.

“For black women, this can be particularly tricky to navigate because while they may see some of themselves or their trauma in the conversation, more often than not, black women are not represented in this 'collective' trauma narrative,” Lynn Roberts, assistant professor of community health at CUNY School of Public Health and a board member of Black Women’s Blueprint, wrote to me in an email. “While the general statistic is that 1 in 6 women in the United States will be a victim of attempted or completed rape, the statistics are much higher for black women and other women of color," Roberts continued. "We know that black women report at a lower rate than white women survivors, and we also know that there are a variety of factors that influence black survivors in seeking help, legal redress, etc. However, that narrative is generally not talked about in mainstream media. Black women have to walk in a world that continues the historical legacy of the sexual assault and rape of our bodies by men who have been reducing our body parts to 'pussies' and 'tits' for centuries. Being a black woman in the U.S. is traumatic, and black women experience violence on a daily basis. No one is discussing that, and that silence is also triggering for black women.”

“I think it's really good that they've opened up this space, but I think it's also really telling that the space they've opened up has generally been for white women, protecting the sanctity of white woman's sexuality,” Tesoro, who’s also a member of the RAINN speaker’s bureau, told me. “I think that if we don't take it a step further than that, nothing is really going to change.”

Holmes-Ackerman suggests this moment urges a critical reexamination of masculinity, and widespread societal ideas of what it means to be a man. “In terms of what Trump said, let's assume for a moment—which I don't believe—but let’s assume that what he said on the Hollywood Access tape was truly just words,” she suggests. “Let's assume that he was just playing big alpha dog, and he had never done any of those things. That still means that’s what it means to be an alpha dog. It is confirming that in order to be a ‘big man,’ that you prove it by taking possession of women and doing with them as you please, as if they were objects.”

“There's a certain quality to someone who perpetrates abuse that is, first of all they see women based on the value of their desirability or objectify them. Almost don't see them as full human beings at some point,” psychotherapist Ross added. “The reductive language that [Trump] uses, it speaks to women based on their weight, or their looks, or rating them a 10 based on whether they have large breasts or not. The way he speaks about women is a way to dehumanize them, an easy way to separate yourself from a woman as being a full human being. If you do that, then it makes it more likely that you can hurt them and not feel remorse.”

Dr. Wyatt makes a point of posing the question, “What do you do about these things?” Numerous survivors I spoke to said they turned off the television or went offline when triggered, a way to shut down a poisonous noise machine when its noxious output became overwhelming. Wyatt emphasis self-care for those whose anxieties, fears and trauma have been elevated by the election.  

“You need to get out, and you need to turn off whatever source of information you’re looking at,” Dr. Wyatt says. “If it means you don't turn on television or radio, or any form of media—Twitter, Facebook, emails, you name it—turn it off. Do not continue to expose yourself to this kind of information because you retraumatize yourself each time you turn it on. You’re not required to be a part of that kind of everyday torture. Immediately, distance yourself from any conversations, socially or anywhere else that are going on, that make you feel uncomfortable, and if you’re in a classroom or a church or religious institution, explain to the person later why you left, so at least people understand it, but you need to protect yourself from it.”

“If you continue to have nightmares and thoughts about what’s been said, or you see scary images, you may need to get into a support group or call a mental health hotline,” Dr. Wyatt adds. “Or if you’ve been in therapy, call your therapist and ask for some telephone time, if not face-to-face time, to give you an opportunity to walk back through your feelings of trauma and terror, so that you can go on and live your life. But it’s most important for everyone to realize that this is not normal behavior, it’s not something acceptable in American society. People who understand what’s going on in our society are repulsed by it and reject it, and you have to do the same thing.”

Though Trump has consistently polled behind Clinton, and continues to see a modest drop in numbers among women, he maintains high numbers—though lower than his GOP predecessors—with Republican women. (He scores low with minority voters for obvious reasons.) An estimated 73 percent of Republican women, an overwhelmingly white constituency, still back Trump. Maclean’s notes that all-women, pro-Trump booster groups exist, including Real Women 4 Trump, Women Vote Trump, Trumpettes USA, Real Housewives of Bel Air for Trump, and @babesfortrump. A photo of a woman at a Trump rally wearing a shirt reading, “Trump can grab my ___”—the sentence is punctuated with an arrow pointing at her crotch—has been making the rounds on social media over the last couple of days.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time here discussing why these women continue to root for a man who thinks so little of them. What results from the combination of white supremacy, Stockholm syndrome, internalized misogyny, and a philosophy that places party loyalty above self-preservation and respect is a discussion for another piece. Many of these women have joined the chorus of Trump defenders who would have us believe that Trump selectively means what he says, at least when they are willing to admit he says it. But there’s nothing inconsequential about loudly and proudly suggesting that sexual assault is a-ok, that attempted rape is normal, that women are props, that we all just need to get over it.

“I'm also a writer and I feel like words have a lot of power, and stories have a lot of power,” Tesoro states. “Narratives have a lot of power. And the idea that you can say these things and have it be an isolated incident, just a way to blow off steam with your buddies or whatever, that's like a very privileged position to have. To say, ‘Yeah, I say these things, but they don't mean anything’—clearly, they do. Because if you get into the mindset of thinking about women as objects for your use and then disposal, that's going to be clearly reflected not only in your attitude and actions, but in the attitude and actions of others.”

“You don't just say these things in jest; you don't say these things in privacy; you don't brag about things you haven’t done,” Dr. Wyatt states. “[T]hese are things that people in our society need to look at when they’re talking to people who are [boasting] about hurting other people. They may think that it’s sexual or they think that’s fun. But to somebody else, it can be harmful, hurtful and terrorizing.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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