The Republican presidential nominee has been caught on tape referring to grabbing women, positing that “you can do anything” when you’re “a star.”
Some news outlets reported this as a problem of sexually descriptive words, such as “Donald Trump’s Graphic Sex Talk Audio Leaked” and “Stars React After Graphic Donald Trump and Billy Bush Convo Leaks.” Even The Washington Post—which broke the story—used the headline “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005.”
The thing about the Republican’s words isn't that they’re explicit or graphic. It's that they're misogynistic, coercive, abusive, and dehumanizing. And as my colleague David Graham notes, illegal: The candidate is describing forcing himself on women, bragging that they’re disinclined to object because of a power structure on which he knowingly capitalizes.
Framing this as lewd, even extremely so, is a reminder of the frequent reluctance to name sexual assault. Explicit conversations are a different thing, a part of life central to mature sexuality. If Trump, Clinton, or any other candidate or human hadn’t had explicit, graphic, lewd conversations, that would be concerning. Trump’s comments are something else.
By comparison, there would be no issue with a recording in which Trump talked about his “veiny member” and how he enjoys “thrusting to and fro until climax.” (Sorry, just making the point.) At this point I’d welcome a leaked tape in which he recounted the best sex he ever had, on a giant yacht. How it was so fantastic, and how many orgasms everyone had, and how no one cried, and he felt like God was moving through him, but it was just semen, huge amounts of amazing semen. How he sometimes weeps when he thinks about women masturbating, because human bodies instill in him a profound sense of awe. And awe isn’t easy to come by these days, let me tell you.
Explicit conversation is a bonding ritual that’s not bad or shameful. Treating it as such makes people misunderstand what explicit conversation is supposed to be—as Trump claimed when he excused his comments as “locker room banter.” To take him at his word, he misunderstands the ritual: Talking explicitly about sex is different from bragging about forcing yourself on people.
Any notion to the contrary is a product of not talking about sex frankly, openly, often enough. And then when you do, feeling like you have to brag about grabbing women “by the pussy” on a bus with Billy Bush, so you end up perpetuating archaic notions of power and forcible objectification. Because that’s what you heard someone else do. That’s what the boys at the New York Military Academy did during Trump’s formative years.
Like Trump, ever more Americans seem to feel that masculinity (as they understand it, narrowly defined) is threatened. It’s threatened specifically by “PC culture,” often used as a sweeping indictment of any attempt at decency. My colleague Molly Ball spoke to some of these men recently at a Trump rally in Pennsylvania, men with chin-strap beards and novelty t-shirts calling Hillary Clinton a bitch because “it’s funny.”
Confusing humor and cruelty is born of profound ignorance, and an idea that violating codes is inherently funny. Counteract this confusion by talking about sex more openly, not less. Show that decency need not be puritanical. Chastise coercion but embrace consensual boning down. (And avoid saying “boning down” until you’ve got a good read on the room.) Because in their ignorance, toxic men are malleable. Their notions of masculinity will change with the culture that shapes them. This starts with the words that, seemingly small, frame these discussions about sex and power, respect and abuse, what’s lewd and what’s baldly inhumane.