It would be nice if this hellscape of an election managed to raise thoughtful discussions on one or two issues of national concern, but instead it appears that it has come down to a single-question personality test. Not, “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” but, “Which candidate, or candidate’s husband, would you be most afraid to ride alone in an elevator with?”
The procession of women this week who accused Donald Trump of forcibly touching and kissing them — one woman said he accosted her on a plane 30 years ago; another said he pinned her against a wall in 2005 while his pregnant wife was upstairs — was unnerving. In a bonkers way, it was also perhaps inevitable for a campaign that kicked off with Trump accusing illegal immigrants from Mexico of being rapists, and then devolved into a scary race in which women’s votes became a symbolic fight for their own personal safety. The ballot as a can of pepper spray.
Or, as the writer Amanda Hess was compelled to tweet as the curtain rose on the second presidential debate, “Never imagined the election of the first female president would come down to a fight over who’s the real rapist, but here we are.”
In the past week:
The Republican nominee is caught on tape telling a television host that he likes to kiss women without warning and “grab ’em by the p---y.”
He responds to the uproar by dismissing this as “locker-room talk” and holding a news conference with women who had previously accused Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee’s husband, of sexually harassing or assaulting them.
Then he claimed Hillary Clinton laughed at a 12-year-old rape victim, whose attacker she was assigned to defend as an attorney several decades ago (the accusation has been debunked). Then four women came forward to say that Trump had actually assaulted them — it wasn’t just locker-room talk — and then Trump denied the allegations, and then first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday gave a fiery speech about it all. (“Stop the madness,” she said. “This is not normal.”)
It would be nice if the election could contain zero rape accusations, but that’s not being presented as an option. The whole presidential race has become a trigger-warning, a public parade of the kind of grabby, gropey behavior that many women have experienced in private but choose not to discuss.
Recently, a pair of United States maps produced by the data and forecasting site FiveThirtyEight were widely circulated online. One predicted the presidential outcome if only women voted, and the other if only men did. These maps placed the election math in starkly chromosomal relief: The male map gave Trump 350 electoral votes to Clinton’s 150. The female map gave Clinton a hefty 458 and Trump a teeny 80. Women’s votes are more important than they have been in recent memory, and wooing them has become an activity performed with a bludgeon.
We’re not talking about rape in the context of abortion policy in cases of assault or incest — a topic on which reasonable, thoughtful minds have disagreed. We’re not talking about funding for schools to provide sexual-assault awareness programs, or about the Title IX implications of universities handling their own assault allegations. We’re not even really talking, philosophically, about how much a female public figure should be responsible for the actions of her philandering husband — a topic that is at least pertinent, even if it does have a whiff of victim-blaming.
What we’re being told is that we’re going to have a leader of the free world who stands accused of being a little bit rape-ish. Or at least tolerant of it.
The silver lining, activists keep telling us online, is that these discussions are, despite it all, raising real questions about sexual assault. This election puts a powerful spotlight on the depravity that has always lurked in the darker corners of the country’s psyche. It’s allowing thousands of women to share examples of harassment in their own lives.
In the course of all of this, terminology has become muddled, and understandings have gotten twisted. There is pervy behavior, like leering and ogling, which is immoral but not illegal. There is “sexual assault,” an umbrella term that includes “rape,” but also includes unwanted fondling, or sexual contact without permission.
Some people seem confused by this. Rush Limbaugh seemed to be on Wednesday, when he said the following on his show: “The left will promote and understand and tolerate anything as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent . . . If the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police.”
It’s true, Mr. Limbaugh, except it won’t be the rape police, it will just be the police, because what you’ve just described is the very definition of sexual assault.
In Texas, a Republican congressman went on live television and responded to the moderator’s question, “If a tape came out with Donald Trump saying that, saying, ‘I really like to rape women,’ you would continue to endorse him?” by saying, “That would be bad. I’d have to consider it.”
It’s true, Mr. Congressman, that it would be bad — and the only correct answer to that question should have been, “No, I will not endorse anybody who says they like raping women.”
But here we are. For three more weeks, here we are.