For many Americans, the 2016 presidential campaign has been a source of severe anxiety. One recent article recommended that stressed-out Twitter users get some breathing room by punctuating their feeds with accounts that share images of furry animals or beautiful art. Others have turned to debate-themed cocktails to deal with the tension. And at least until recently, still more people found comfort in the national coping mechanism that is Ken Bone.
But for women, especially those who have been victims of sexual assault, the recent torrent of allegations against Donald Trump can be acutely debilitating. Our Facebook and Twitter feeds, the ticker scrolling across the bottom of our television screens, the breaking news alerts on our phones—all of them serve as a constant reminder of the power men have over us, and the terrifying prospect that a man who brags about assaulting women could become our president. The 2016 election—and the news cycle that feeds off it—should come with a trigger warning.
The number of women affected by sexual assault is impossible to quantify. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of every five American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Sexual assault affects even more women, as evidenced from the 30 million tweets in response to author Kelly Oxford’s post asking women to share stories of their first experiences of it. And that is to say nothing of the endless array of microaggressions that women face every day—from leering stares and catcalls to co-workers rating women’s bodies over lunch and men who follow us off the bus when they don’t get the attention they want.
Hera Hussain is the founder of Chayn, an organization that works at the intersection of gender and technology, and recently invented the first Snapchat hotline for teens who want to talk about relationship violence. She explains that it’s not just reports of Trump’s behavior that creates anxiety, but the way women are treated on social media when they air their grievances.
“It is far too easy to hide behind a screen and harass women,” she says. “Internet and social platforms were not designed keeping the harassment women face in daily life in mind. What’s scary is the unwillingness of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to take these complaints seriously, especially from women of color.”
Indeed, the courage and resolve of the women who are coming forward with allegations against Trump should be applauded. They are going public with their stories despite the fact that they face an outpouring of hatred, trolling and victim-blaming. As feminist author and Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti woefully pointed out Thursday morning, #NextFakeTrumpVictim is now a hashtag trending on Twitter. And while it’s heartening to see that reports of Trump’s behavior seem to be hastening his decline in the polls, some women will undoubtedly see the threats of lawsuits and cruelty to which his accusers are being subjected and feel afraid to come forward and report their own abusers.
“For women in America, and other part of the world, this is a painful reminder that you can be on record boasting of sexual assault as the nominee for the President, and still have it dismissed as ‘just something men say,’” says Hussain.
It’s true, of course, that there are plenty of men who condemn such abhorrent behavior. But it is also true that no man can understand from personal experience what it is like to be confronted with it day after day. To be a woman in 2016 is to be exposed to reports of blatant sexism and sexual assault by a presidential nominee on a daily basis and then, in the next breath, be asked to explain why we’re offended by gender inequality in our society. I’m not sure which is more exhausting.
We can probably expect even more Trump scandals to come out before November 8. Repeat exposure to these stories may even normalize them for some. But many women will never stop being shaken by each individual account of Trump’s horrifying misogyny. It’s a reminder of the way that some men talk about us when we’re not there—of the fact that, in an era when Hillary Clinton may become our first female president, there are people in the US who still see women as less than human.