The Lasting Harm of Trump-Style Sexism

The Republican nominee has dismissed his misogynist speech as “just words.” But multiple studies show rude rhetoric can have a major impact on thinking, stress, and self-esteem.

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Where were you when you heard the potential leader of the free world say he feels like he can grab women by the genitals? Or when he interrupted his female opponent during a debate to say she’s “such a nasty woman?”

In this last, grim half of 2016, a trend has emerged: After every debate peppered with interstitial WRONGs and every report brimming with new groping allegations, many women have said Donald Trump’s attitude makes them feel ... well, gross. To him, it’s an offhand remark, but across the internet, there’s a collective shudder. Many of us wondered, “Do men really think like that?” or “Is the moderator going to let him get away with that?” or “Are women really so objectified that we can be described with the same verb—‘grab em!’— that one would use for a tube of Go-Gurt?”

Many of Trump’s female detractors are liberal, true, but this revolted feeling spanned party lines. Victims of trauma have perhaps been most distressed by it all. After the publication of Trump’s 2005 hot-mic moment on Access Hollywood, women tweeted accounts of their molestations at a rate of 50 per minute. Parents used it to teach their kids about respect and boundaries. And after 12 women came forward to allege that Trump groped them just as he bragged, people who had buried their assaults for decades talked openly about them for the first time. One rape victim told Slate’s Michelle Goldberg that her traumatic memories, “really kicked in with this whole conversation about how rape-y he is.” Even women who aren’t sexual-trauma survivors found themselves, as Michelle Obama put it, shaken to the core.

There’s a good chance Trump won’t be president, but even so, this probably won’t be the last we see of him. So what effect will his brand of sexist language, coming out of so prominent a mouth, have on womankind as a whole? And will it linger, like a retrograde fart, after Tuesday?

First, it’s important to note that though it’s highly unlikely a dozen women would all invent stories about Trump groping and kissing them, he has denied the allegations that his words translated to deeds. But even Trump’s most oft-repeated defense—that these are “just words” or “just locker room talk”—doesn’t fully render them harmless. Political speech might sound like repetitive background noise, but it can have a big effect on people. Even though some women have reclaimed the “nasty” insult, social science suggests racist, sexist, and rude remarks really can hurt.

Let’s start with rudeness, Trump’s linguistic calling card. Multiple studies suggest rude language can impair cognition. Students who were criticized before an experiment came up with less creative uses for a brick, for instance. The ones who were treated civilly offered inventive uses like, “hang it in a museum and call it abstract art.” But the ones treated brusquely by the experimenter said things that were logical, but not very creative, including—no joke—“build a wall.” This same pattern has been shown among doctors and other groups of people. We just don’t think as clearly when we’re insulted, and we also seem to like each other less. In another study in which experimenters were rude to participants who, perhaps unwisely, were given bricks, the participants said they’d like to “smash the experimenter’s face,” “attack someone,” or “beat someone up.”

Second, there’s something about seeing this bile on TV, in a presidential debate, that makes it even worse. One study found that, though it’s not bad for voters to hear opposing views on television, uncivil political discourse undermines trust in government. It also discourages would-be female politicians from running for office, says Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University. “Perceptions of sexism or discrimination lead women to doubt their qualifications to enter the political arena,” she said. “I worry that the way Donald Trump has behaved will stick around in women’s minds and further perpetuate the idea that women can’t be successful if they run for office.”

Of course, the negative consequences of discriminatory speech fall disproportionately on the targets of these words—everyday women, in this case. In one study from 2001, women kept diaries of the sexist or demeaning comments they heard. And they were pretty bad: One wrote that a male friend told her, “bitch, get me some beer!’” or “You’re a woman, so fold my laundry.” The more such comments women heard in a day, the more they felt angry and depressed, and the less they thought of themselves. Another study similarly concluded that women who faced sexist discrimination, including being called things like “bitch,” were more likely to experience mental-health issues, even when accounting for the overall level of daily stress they experienced. These comments can affect even women who only observe them: One study had female students watch a video clip in which a man yells, “Hey Kelly, your boobs look great in that shirt!” at a fictitious woman. That made the women feel more anger and fear, and it made them want to distance themselves from men.

What’s more, different types of discrimination can compound each other. When someone like Trump criticizes Mexicans in one breath and women in another, it’s Mexican women who might feel most insulted. Laurel Watson, a psychologist and professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, found in one study that women who reported more sexual objectification—black women, in this case—felt more afraid for their physical safety. In another study, Watson found racism, sexism, and sexual objectification were all correlated with symptoms of PTSD among women of color.

“These are really harmful experiences when you look at the cumulative effect over time,” Watson said. “They’re not just experiences you can just disregard and say there’s no impact. These have a significant impact on women’s mental health.”

Lawless, from American, says it’s important to distinguish between Trump’s actions before he entered the race and what he’s said on the trail. The Access Hollywood tape, for instance, is not what Lawless would call “political rhetoric,” though, “the way he talks about it now is political rhetoric that is off-putting to female voters.”

Even if Trump doesn’t win, Lawless points out, voters who have been energized by his campaign might inspire future candidates to replicate Trump-style rhetoric. Fringe candidates might think, hey, if the people want bullying and bluster, let’s give the people what they want! “That will generally bode poorly for anyone who’s interested in bringing about civility in politics,” she said.

Watson, who conducted the studies on sexism and PTSD, suggested Trump’s candidacy lays bare the bleak state of gender relations in the U.S. This is, after all, one of two people voters picked to represent them: someone who has mistreated women over the course of decades in public life. Even if we already knew America has yet to reach full gender equality, this year has shown just how long a road it will be.

“If he’s running for the most powerful position for our country, how is [sexism] ever going to be taken seriously?” Watson told me. “I personally felt so deflated and disgusted. Here’s rape culture laying out before us.”