Election 2016

Electoral Politics Is a Horrible Context In Which to Talk About Sexual Consent

People excited to see sexual-consent issues dominating cable news probably won't like where this is going.


John Rudoff/Polaris/Newscom

With less than a month left until the 2016 presidential election, the focus has shifted from immigration, foreign affairs, free trade, and other (nominal) questions of policy to whether the Republican nominee is a sexual predator and how much room his opponent has to criticize him for it, given her own husband's history with women. In the wake of the release of Trump's now-infamous 2005 boasts about grabbing women "by the pussy" and kissing them "without waiting," questions surrounding sexual consent are dominating the news, with Donald Trump's defenders expected to answer for not just the candidate's own treatment of women but the lifetimes of unwanted advances many modern women have faced.

At first the spectacle felt at least a little novel, and not just because of the political stakes. Most instances in which these issues penetrate the public consciousness are pre-packaged for picking a side. A woman—or multiple women, as in recent high-profile cases such as the one with Bill Cosby—comes out with a story of sexual harassment, assault, or rape; her alleged assailant denies it; and everyone falls in line to either insist we "believe women" about these things no matter what or that ladies be batshit insane attention-seekers who lie about rape all the time. But with Trump's taped comments, the same old script didn't work.

For one, there was no accusatory woman to center the counter-attack on. For another, there was direct and indisputable evidence of the bad behavior in question; reasonable people can argue over how literally to take Trump's assertions, but there's no denying he said what he said. So here we all were, having a more meta conversation about consent, crossing boundaries, why women might not report things like unwanted groping to the police but still don't want (and shouldn't have) to put up with it, and what responsibility men have to call out other men for bad behavior. Here we were with prominent Republicans who heretofore been at least nominally OK with Trump now calling for his head.

And here were conservative women, too, coming forward with their own tales of being manhandled, sexually harassed, or raped, and disbelieved or told it was no big deal. For a minute, many conservative women were speaking in unison with left-leaning counterparts about these issues (a phenomenon also seen, if briefly, after Trump went after Megyn Kelly and when Gretchen Carlson and other women came out against former Fox News boss Roger Ailes). People across the political spectrum could be found expressing both contempt for the fact that this was what the presidential race had come to and cautious optimism that it would, somehow, be a force for good.

But that didn't last long. Within eight (long) days of the Trump pussy-grabbing comments coming out, Trump and his surrogates were trotting out women who've accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, a bevy of new allegations against Trump were aired, and before long it was back to business as usual. Republicans, including those with no love for Trump, demand that people assign more weight to the allegations against Bill, and liberals shrug. Women accuse Trump of molesting them, his detractors demand these claims be taken seriously, and conservatives shrug. Both assume the other side is simply trying to score political points, and of course both are. The women, whatever they have or have not suffered at the hands of either Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, have quickly been reduced to mere props in this familiar partisan (and ratings/clicks driven) play.

The Trump campaign's decision to defend their man by deflecting blame to Bill is understandable—after all, Trump was initially being pilloried mostly for things he said (and what they implied), but Bill stood accused of actually doing despicable things toward women. But this, along with Trump's outright denial that he ever treated women badly in real life, inspired a quicky new cottage industry of claims from women who say they were victimized by Trump.

An organic response from ladies who finally felt angry enough to come forward, or felt for the first time—in the wake of the leaked tape—that their allegations against Trump would be believed? A coordinated attack from Clinton supporters? Or can we blame the press, as reporters rushed to contact and listen to anyone with an anti-Trump story in the hopes of breaking the next big scoop or winning that day's ratings cycle? I'm prone to think it's some of all three.

I'm also prone to think any of the women's claims could be true, even if they originated in opposition research—but I'd probably be more skeptical of those that did. And it's certainly not the realm of Trumpkin conspiracy-theory that pro-Hillary forces may have enticed some of these women to come forward. That's politics. We're in the final stretches of the race for the most powerful position in the country. Democrats would be idiots not to try and stoke these flames.

And Republicans, at least those who still find a Trump presidency worth fighting for, would be idiots not to paint Trump's accusers as liars who are politically motivated.

It's a good reminder why campaign politics is a horrible context in which to have a productive national conversation about sexual consent (if such a thing is even at all possible). The stakes here are just too high. It's he-said/she-said with not just one person's reputation, freedom, or justice on the line but the reputations, hopes, and livelihoods of all those personally invested in the outcome of this election and, to some extent, the future of the Republican Party. If anything, it's only going to get uglier from here.

As more women come out with horror stories about Trump—and this seems absolutely inevitable, if only because you have sectors of several different industries (tabloid media, political media, the Democratic political machine, etc.) devoted, with varying degrees of scruples, to finding these stories—Trump's surrogates on TV and the campaign trail, his social-media militia, and Trump himself are going to have to spend more time discrediting these women, which (if the Michelle Fields fiasco and other incidents provide any blueprint) will likely mean going after them individually, going after the credibility of women who accuse men of sex-crimes more generally, and portraying the media as complicit in a plot to elect Hillary Clinton. The latter will, of course, be bolstered by the fact that media is insanely fixated on stories involving Trump's treatment of women, because these are the stories audiences actually click on/share/watch.

For Trump fans, this fixation will serve to bolster beliefs about liberal bias in the media and the need for a guy like the GOP candidate. For liberals (and to some degree anti-Trump Republicans), it will serve as more evidence that Trump is uniquely terrible, a monster of near-mythic proportions who must be stopped at all costs. For the rest of us, it will serve to block out any hope of seeing substantive discussions of policy, an abatement of hysterical negativity on both sides—or anything resembling a fair, nuanced, or productive focus on sex, power, and consent.

During the late 1990s, audiences routinely said there was too much focus in the media on Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But the coverage also yielded high ratings for the cable news networks that covered it all the time. Meanwhile, most people's core response to any of the issues it raised was cemented early, along partisan lines. "The fact that public opinion became polarized along party lines very early, even before many facts about the affair had been disclosed, goes a long way toward clarifying why people did not become increasingly indignant as the scandal played out," wrote former University of Iowa poli-sci professor Arthur H. Miller in a Political Science and Politics journal paper on the coverage.

I think we may have already reached peak indignation here, and are snowballing toward the point where it all becomes bias-confirmation or background noise to most people. Partisan activists and media will keep milking it as much and as long as they can, but the end result among general public will just be to further politicize issues like rape and women's rights.