Surviving Sexual Assault in Trump's America
When I was in graduate school, I was raped and emotionally abused by a man I loved. This went on for a year or so. Eventually I told a few close friends what had happened. One of these friends, a man, was also a friend of my abuser, and they ended up talking about the rape. My abuser had laughed and assigned blame at a rate of 60 percent him, 40 percent me. The two then haggled, still laughing, over that percentage. The highest he was willing to go was 70/30.
Sometime after this, my abuser called. We hadn't spoken in months. People were starting to find out about what happened, he said. He asked if I could stop telling people I was raped, because that was such an ugly word, and it hurt his feelings. He'd admit to the sexual assault. But rape, that was rough. Maybe I could help do a little damage control?
I didn't know what to say.
"Whitney," he said, that old taunting tone returning to his voice. "Do you think of me as your rapist?"
I remember thinking that this was, in all likelihood, the strangest question I would ever be asked. I remember feeling dizzy. I do not remember how I answered.
The shell shock and utter loss for words — dissociation, almost — that characterized that exchange, and so much following my assault, came roaring back to life as the likelihood of a Trump presidency crystallized in the election night returns. Even after the Access Hollywood "grab them by the pussy" tapes were released. Even after the steady stream of sexual assault allegations. And even after the mile-long record of publicly denigrating women with whom Trump disagrees, and whose bodies he does not find attractive.
Donald Trump's reaction to the release of the tapes — and to the slew of sexual assault allegations that followed — was just as damning as the tapes themselves. Not only did Trump attempt to control the narrative, he asserted linguistic control as well, arguing that his admission of sexual assault was just "locker room talk." And in a rhetorical move akin to the gravitational collapse of a dying star, he deflected his own accusations by trotting out several Bill Clinton accusers, on the grounds that women's stories of sexual harassment and abuse should be taken seriously.
Hearing the tapes was bad enough. Hearing Trump and his surrogates talk about them so dismissively, and talk about his accusers so disdainfully, was worse. All I could think about was my own abuser reframing every conversation, deflecting every grievance. The post-traumatic flashbacks and intrusive thoughts I had grown somewhat accustomed to over the years became, at times, so intense that I was unable to do anything but curl up in a ball on my couch and sob. I could have predicted this response, as could the millions of other women whose experiences with sexual assault continue to reverberate. At least, I thought, as so many of us thought, as we fought back tears standing in line at the bank, or in a classroom, or eating dinner with our children, with our daughters, this is it for him. At least everyone knows what he is now. At least it's almost over.
Then it wasn't.
Suddenly, my need and my right to feel safe as a woman and as a survivor was threatened by precisely the kind of man women need protecting against. This feeling was amplified by the knowledge that 60 million Americans had observed all of Trump's public behaviors toward women, toward so many groups, and voted for him anyway. They had their reasons for doing so, and these reasons weren't uniform. Regardless, the implicit validation of Trump's behavior consumed me — one among so many — with grief and confusion and sinking fear for myself and for others, for the tens of millions of women whose stories are identical to mine, worse than mine.
I cannot separate my reaction to Trump's victory from my own embodied experiences. Neither can all those whom Trump has antagonized, denigrated, and promised to disenfranchise on the basis of race, sexuality, gender identity, or religion. This connection is raw, and it is painful. It's hearing Trump taunt his accusers, refuse culpability, and rewrite history, and in that same moment hearing echoes of your own accuser taunting you, blaming you, gaslighting you. Just like experiences of bigotry and xenophobia and toxic misogyny, the memory of sexual assault is not abstract. It resides in the body — in muscle memory, in the nervous system — long after the experience has ended.
Calling for those disgusted by Trump's victory to make nice, to smooth over the targeted cruelty of the past twelve months and dispassionately embrace the new president, as if Donald Trump were just another politician, and this were just another election, is to minimize millions of people's experiences of trauma, violence, and injustice. Worse, it is to suggest that these experiences, and the passionate, visceral responses they engender, should be minimized. Bodies getting in the way of democracy. But not everyone is so easily able to step away from their own body. Not everyone has the luxury of thinking in abstractions.
Whitney Phillips is a digital-media folklorist and assistant professor of literary studies and writing at Mercer University. She is the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things and co-author of The Ambivalent Internet with Ryan M. Milner. She tweets at @wphillips49.