Trump's Victory Sends a Disturbing Message About Sexual Assault

A candidate who dismissed boasts of sexual assault as “locker room talk” will now serve as president.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Donald Trump’s presidential victory threatens to intensify sexism and misogyny in American public life.

Polling indicates that most Americans believed the women who came forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault. Election exit polls suggest that allegations over his treatment of women have made a majority of voters feel uncomfortable.

Americans elected him president anyway. That sends a message that bragging about groping women—as Trump did in the 2005 Access Hollywood recording that surfaced during his presidential run—is  behavior to either be rewarded or ignored. That it is permissible to talk about women as little more than sex objects. That when women report sexual assault they may be believed, but the person they accuse may evade serious repercussions all the same.

As a presidential candidate, Trump called the women who claim he groped them liars, even suggesting that some were too ugly to sexually assault. He has also threatened to sue them for speaking out. Trump’s presidential triumph risks leaving the impression that each of these actions have earned a stamp of approval from the electorate. If that is one of the lessons that men and women draw from the result of the election, it could set back efforts to combat sexual violence as well as prejudice and discrimination against women.

“The President of the United States is an extremely important role model to future generations,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “And we have a generation now of young boys who will have watched an election where that there were no consequences to behaving that way and speaking that way about women.”

Young girls who watched the election have received that message as well. And there is already evidence to suggest that Trump’s comments have had a negative impact. A national poll of teenage girls conducted for The New York Times found that forty-two percent said that the way Trump talks about women has influenced the way they think about their own bodies.

Here’s what some of the girls surveyed had to say from a report in the Times:

“That hits me hard when people like Trump say people who are skinnier than I am are too big,” said Morgan Lesh, 15, in Moro. “It makes me feel extremely insecure about myself.”

Morgan’s friend Jordan Barrett, 14, agreed with her, even though they disagree on who should win the election.

“Especially for girls in high school, rating girls on a scale of 1 to 10 does not help because it really does get into your head that they think I’m ugly or I don’t look good,” Jordan said.

For at least four years, Trump will command a highly-visible platform from which to speak his mind whenever he chooses. When he speaks, his words will carry a significant amount of weight and influence. The message he sends will matter. And now that he has won the presidency, Americans may feel even more emboldened to echo his words.

To the extent that they do, rape culture—a term coined in the 1970s to describe the various ways that society normalizes sexual violence by blaming the victim and failing to hold the perpetrator accountable—could spread. Women may be more hesitant to speak out about sexual assault in the future after witnessing  the way that Trump not only retaliated against and threatened his accusers, but did not appear to suffer any serious penalty stemming from the accusations.

The results of the election may also give women and young girls pause when considering whether to run for political office. Clinton herself faced a sexist backlash during her campaign, voiced not just by some Trump supporters, but by Trump himself. Trump framed Clinton’s entire candidacy as a cynical ploy to use her gender for political gain when he accused her of playing the woman card. He suggested she did not have the stamina for the job, a line of attack that built on a long history of attacking women’s health in an attempt to discredit them. And he won. Women may conclude that they would face a similar backlash if they entered into politics, and may consequently decide against it, especially if they believe that enduring it as Clinton did is no guarantee of victory.

Exit polls suggest that the American public is deeply conflicted about Trump’s election. There are undoubtedly many people who voted for Trump, including many women, who do not believe that everything he has said or done is right or morally defensible. But those people, as well as the rest of the nation, must now grapple with the fact that Trump’s election may normalize, excuse, or otherwise encourage, everything he has said, done and advocated for all the same.

During her concession speech on Wednesday, Clinton delivered her own message to girls. “To all the little girls that are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance, and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams,” Clinton said. The question now: Under a Trump presidency, who will believe that assertion holds true?