Last week, when a video emerged of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging to the TV personality Billy Bush about sexually predatory advances on women, Americans put on their most shocked faces. Such lewd talk of adultery and nasty behavior coming from a presidential candidate’s mouth! Trump crossed a line, and he did little to walk it back when he dismissed the controversy as a “distraction” and and overreaction to “locker room banter.” Prominent Republicans scrambled to retract their endorsements.
But while the words on the video were vile, they probably shouldn’t have been so shocking. We already knew—did we not?—that Trump was the kind of person likely to “grab her by the pussy.” We knew it because so many women had said he did exactly that to them.
Over the years, several women—one of them his former wife, and one who was 13 at the time of the alleged incident—had publicly accused Trump of groping, unwanted kissing, and even rape. Others had said they witnessed this behavior. Miss Universe pageant contestants described him kissing them on the lips with no encouragement. Crew members from his reality TV show, The Apprentice, spoke of Trump making lewd jokes about female contestants between takes. Those stories—which Trump has denied—have been out there since long before the release of Access Hollywood‘s shocking tape.
A slew of other women have come forward with similar allegations since the tape’s release, and described encounters where Trump allegedly groped them, put his hand up their skirt, or forcibly kissed them. One of his accusers was a reporter who had come to interview him and his wife for a feature on the couple’s first wedding anniversary.
Again, Trump has denied these accusations and threatened to sue news organizations that report them.
A Miss Teen USA contestant said he would sneak in on half-naked teenagers in the pageant’s changing rooms—an allegation he added credibility to when he publicly boasted of such behavior at the Miss Universe pageant. “Well, I’ll tell you the funniest is that before a show, I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed,” he bragged to a laughing Howard Stern and Robin Quivers in 2005. “And you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant.”
A group representing more than 3,000 rape victims condemned Trump’s words in the videotape in a full-page ad in the Washington Post on Oct. 11, reminding America that one in five women in the country is, at least once, sexually assaulted—and that most perpetrators simply get away with it. “When survivors of sexual assault come forward, they are too often blamed, shamed and disbelieved,” the women wrote. “Donald Trump’s bragging teaches men that they can get away with it—and your silence means you stood by and watched.”
Is the American public guilty of ignoring the women’s accusations against Donald Trump? It’s a complicated question to answer, given that he was never convicted of rape or sexual assault. But it’s certainly true that the cascade of allegations didn’t appear to make a major dent in his Republican support until he was heard himself describing his sexually aggressive behavior.
This might sound familiar: The comedian Bill Cosby was similarly given a pass in public perception, despite accusations from women over decades who said they were drugged and then attacked by the beloved TV personality.
When Cosby’s rape scandal finally exploded last year—starting with the comedian Hannibal Buress referring to it in his stand-up act and crescendoing with 35 of Cosby’s accusers featured on the cover of New York Magazine—there should have been no story to break. Cosby’s reputation was well-known, in and outside of comedy circles.
In a self-critical essay in the Atlantic, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledged his part in ignoring the mounting allegations against Cosby, by referencing them only briefly in a reported piece he wrote for the magazine in 2008:
Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another—it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others.
Powerful people become targets for all kinds of accusations—truths and lies. But the lack of a court conviction for Cosby was not enough to justify ignoring the allegations, Coates wrote. And when we tune out the women who accuse these men, we are ourselves guilty, he argued. “It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us,” Coates writes. “And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.”
Trump is not accused of the kind of methodical serial rape that Cosby is. But he is presenting himself as a candidate to become the most powerful person in the world—which should open him up to some additional scrutiny. The similarity with Cosby is in his confidence that no one would call him on his behavior toward women. Cosby made jokes as part of his comedy act in the 1960s about procuring drugs to incapacitate women, and Trump felt comfortable talking about assaulting women with a TV personality and a crew, while wearing a microphone.
Cosby and Trump were right: Even with accusations against them out in plain sight and their visibly creepy behavior, their lives and careers as public figures went on relatively undisturbed. They relied on our willingness to ignore what women said about them.
It’s not just victims of sexual violence who are silenced by society’s tendency to ignore women’s words and allow powerful men to control the narrative, as Michelle Obama pointed out in a speech in New Hampshire today (Oct. 13). Trump’s words on the video brought up painful, suppressed memories for many women.
“All of us are doing what women have always done,” Obama told the crowd at a rally for Hillary Clinton. “We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us. Maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak. Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his.”
Deciding whether an accusation of sexual assault is justified is very difficult. Often, the old feminist rule is brought up: Start out by believing the person who says they were assaulted. Because while there are false claims, those are the exception, not the rule.
Accusations against Trump continue to mount, as they did with Cosby before him. Our belated recognition of the seriousness of the situation is yet another reminder of the step that comes even before the question of whether or not to believe a woman: Listen to her.