Content Warning: rape culture.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post released leaked audio from 2005 showing that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump regularly uses his wealth and celebrity status to force himself physically on women.
Because there seems to be some confusion, Donald Trump was not caught on tape talking about sex. He was caught on tape talking about sexual assault as a positive and regular thing that he does. This isn't about a bawdy conversation. This is about a presidential nominee of a major party not caring how consent works. That's why people are pissed.
Yes, some women are indeed agreeing that there was nothing troubling or abnormal about what Trump said. Believe it or not, being a woman does not actually give someone a magic filter that protects them from internalizing sexism and rape culture. Part of rape culture is, in fact, about teaching women to not expect their consent to be asked for or needed. This is why it's called a "systemic" problem.
But I’m not here to talk to women, today. Lots of other really awesome women are already doing that, and you should go read them when you’re done here. I want to talk to my fellow dudes on the subject of where we go from here.
Let’s define “here.” Here is the world where someone who could very well be the next president of Texas and 49 less-awesome states is comfortable admitting out loud to people that he has no need to seek consent from women before trying to kiss them or touch them. It’s a world where, frankly, pretending that rape culture doesn’t exist can only be accomplished through deliberate, willful ignorance. It’s a world where if you have been laboring under the delusion that sexism, misogyny, rape and sexual assault are problems that have largely been dealt with, you really can’t anymore and call yourself a good person.
So what’s a good man to do now? Follow these three steps.
Step 1: Don’t Touch, Kiss or Penetrate Any People Who Haven't Made It Explicitly Clear They Want You To, And Stop If They Tell You To
This step is suuuuuuuuper easy, but the number of people who simply can’t get it the heck right is disturbingly high. The problem seems to be that guys want to touch, kiss and penetrate people, but they know if they walk up to a strange person and say, “Can I touch your genitals?” the answer will probably be no. They still want to do it, though, so they find a “trick” like being a crowded subway, or being in a position that allows them plausible deniability. “I wasn’t feeling your chest! I was checking your breathing.” Guys get away with this because women de-escalate rather than retaliate since retaliation has a lot of consequences.
I want to share a story someone shared with me on Facebook while we were discussing the release of the Trump tapes…
I was friends with a girl in college whose boyfriend had convinced her it was normal and common for men to "slip" during sex and end up having accidental butt sex, and she just had to accept it because that was a common mistake, and there was nothing to be done about it. I found this out because she complained to me about how horrible it was and how she really wished it wasn’t such a common mistake so she could do something about it because it was so awful.
I bring this up as an extreme example of what not to do. If you want to touch, kiss or penetrate someone, ask. Period. If they say no, that’s the end of the discussion. It's not your invitation to work around it. Okay, moving on.
Step 2: Do Not Allow Other People To Think The Things Trump Said Were “Normal”
This one is harder, and it’s going to involve a lot of confrontation.
The refrain from Trump and his defenders is that his recorded conversation was normal locker room talk between guys (because guys are just naturally horny cavemen when we’re not around women, don’t you know). There’s a nice subtext of people being too PC to handle the “natural” thought processes of men, probably because of feminism or the gay agenda or something. I don’t know. I don’t speak Meathead.
Trump’s conversation was not a normal conversation between men in general. It was a normal conversation between rapists, sexual assailants and rape apologists. It’s kind of like if you were standing in a group of men and one of them started talking about the genetic inferiority of blacks, you wouldn’t think, “this is how men talk.” You’d think, “Man, they should put up a sign letting people know there was a Klan meeting going on here. Oh wait, there’s one…”
The idea that conversations like the one Donald Trump and Billy Bush were having do not have real world effects regarding rape and sexual assault is simply unscientific and inaccurate. The link between exposure to normalized male-dominant sexual narratives and their effect on how we think about sexual assault and harassment has been really thoroughly researched (links to multiple studies in the middle of the page). When we see what Donald Trump says is regular behavior as just something men do, we are less likely to do something about that behavior.
So when your buddy starts making jokes about roofies and a woman you know, you need to look him in the eye and say, “That’s fucked up, and I fear for every woman you meet.” If you see a Facebook friend complaining that we’re all too sensitive and that Trump’s words and actions are no big deal, you need to let them know they just said sexual assault is no big deal. And you have to remind them that kissing someone against her or his will is definitely sexual assault because there are some really disturbing numbers showing men are pretty cool with rape as long as you don’t call it that.
This is a thing the world actively needs from you. Men have to police other men and not leave it to women, who are already fighting this fight from lower ground. Do not allow the men around you to think you’re okay with the problematic things they say. Your silence is tacit encouragement. Lastly…
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Step 3: Don’t Get Mad And Make This About Your Feelings
A lot of guys take female fear of rape and assumption of men’s possible intentions super personally (content warning: Breitbart nonsense). Even a lot of feminist guys can treat any mild criticism of their words and actions as harsh and unfair rebukes. After all, they are Nice Guys™. How dare anyone impugn them! And then it’s just a short hop into #NotAllMen and all progress is lost.
I’ve gone over this before, but it bears repeating. The uncomfortable feeling that a woman may fear you’re a rapist does not trump the feeling of that actual fear. Your discomfort is a milder distress than terror. It sucks to see a headline like “Is There a Rapist-in-Waiting in Every Man?” and feel it paints your gender with a unfairly broad brush, but that icky feeling in your stomach just doesn’t have the same weight on this problem’s scale. Insisting it does gets us away from preventing as much rape as we can and back on how important it is a man never feel bad about something.
Let’s review. If you want to be a good man, here are your marching orders: Always seek consent, correct the men around you propping up rape culture, and don’t make this all about your feelings. Anything else is admitting you’re fine with Trump’s vision of how women should be treated, and that makes you garbage.
Jef’s book book of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now.