The nation spent the last month or so deciding whether to mind that one of the two major party candidates, Donald Trump, had been recorded on tape bragging about using his money and power to kiss and grope women without consent, including the line about “grabbing women by the pussy,” that spurred the wondrous range of “pussy grabs back” memes.
This came on the heels of disrespect toward Mexican Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans and those with disabilities. Was it mere “locker room talk,” descriptively if not prescriptively normal? Many athletes rejected this defense, while others noted that the talk was more typical of middle school than the adult phase of the life course. The Republican women who wore the “Trump is welcome to grab this (downward arrow),” shirts tried to move the focus away from the absence of consent by blazoning their permission across their bodies.
In an extraordinary speech on Oct. 13 in New Hampshire, the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, channeled our collective disbelief and the affective toll of hearing the recording: “I can’t believe that I’m saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women;” “I can’t stop thinking about this — it has shaken me to my core.”
The words were especially powerful coming from Michelle Obama, who had run an equally extraordinary “United State of Women Summit” at the White House in June 2016. This summit centered the intersectional nature of gender and sexuality: sexism does not exist in a power-neutral, binary male-female gender system, but is always already part of intersecting hierarchies of race, sexuality, ableism, and power.
Michelle Obama is incomparable. But she was also able to address the recording’s revelations in a way that Hillary Clinton could not. The sexual exploits of former President Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton’s perceived complicity in making them go away, had long since rendered the possible first ever woman President of the United States of America inauthentic on the topic of sexual abuse and the denigration of women.
And now, with mere days to go and potentially affecting the outcome of the election, the FBI has reopened their investigation into items possibly related to Hillary Clinton’s emails. The emails now being investigated seem to have come to light during a criminal investigation of Anthony Weiner and to have been sent by Clinton’s close aide, Huma Abedin, to Weiner, Abedin’s estranged husband. Former New York Congressman Weiner’s electronic devices had been seized because he sexted an underage young woman, and then later continued this behavior, notoriously sexting a woman a photo of his crotch while sitting next to his and Abedin’s four-year-old child.
What can we learn from the fact that the scenography of this election has included explicit sexual predation at every turn?
First, the age of social media has shone a light on – anything but brought an end to – the ubiquitous pairing of power and sexual desire, harassment, and assault (it is important to remember that men are also victims of sexual harassment and assault, and that sexual assault and harassment are not confined to heterosexuality). And social media has revealed, rather than ended, the ways that power still disproportionately reproduces and is in turn reproduced by racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and citizenship status. The work for the age of social media is just beginning and it could not be more urgent; so far, we have done nothing to combat what is being revealed, and, on the contrary, we have evidence that algorithms and social media tend to amplify rather than correct for structural bias and discrimination.
Second, the tendency to see this ubiquity of sexual predation as a race to the bottom, to the lowest of the low, to the tawdry and shameful, that takes our attention away from “real policy issues” must be resisted. Sexual predation, like racial discrimination and ableism, is built into every aspect of our polity from unconscious bias to digital design, city-scapes, and the law. Until we treat this locker room talk, this tawdry refrain of 2016, as the urgent policy issue that it is, there is no hope of beginning to address the issues in question.
And third, we need to come to grips with what it means that many people in power today grew up during an era when sexual desire and various kinds of power – whether workplace, political, monetary, or aesthetic – were considered to go together, with or without consent. The fact that the person with less power was so commonly disproportionately harmed in the long run, even in consensual relationships, took time to surface.
On campus, our efforts to mount an anti-rape culture curriculum beyond sexual harassment and assault prevention training and compliance are held back by our having not yet developed ways to talk about deeply embedded histories and geographies of power and sex. In particular, within academia, we have to find a way to talk about the links between knowledge and desire, much as we are beginning to be able to talk about party culture. On college campuses, many senior professors and administrators are married to former students or junior colleagues, just as many older doctors married their nurses, and successful business people married and had affairs with secretaries and mentees. Older and newer genealogies of sexual desire and predation co-exist. We need to start with the ubiquity: only then we can finally begin a deep conversation about the right ways forward. There might yet be a silver lining in this hideous election season.