Over the better part of a year, as Donald Trump rose up to secure the Republican presidential nomination, many Americans remained in disbelief. They were convinced there would come a time, soon, that Trump would say something so outrageous, or so offensive, that finally everyone could agree it was too much, and his campaign would flounder.
But that time never came, not even after a tape emerged last week in which the GOP contender could be heard bragging about being able to get away with actions — including the now infamous boast of forcibly grabbing women by their genitals — that amount to sexual assault.
“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump declared last night during the third and final presidential debate with his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. “Nobody.”
Voters will weigh that assertion — and many others — in less than three weeks. But what’s clear is that the response to the recording by Trump and his supporters, who dismissed his words as mere “locker room talk,” or, more recently, as “boys’ talk,” underscores a profound lack of consensus in our culture about what sexual assault looks like.
Research suggests that this isn’t all that surprising.
To be sure, sexual aggression can take many forms, and it happens on a continuum, from actions that are easily identifiable, to situations that are decidedly more murky and difficult for many people to label. The prototypical image most people have in their minds when it comes to sexual assault, after all, looks something like this: A strange man with a weapon attacks and penetrates a woman — one who has not been drinking, mind you — in a dark, isolated location, while she valiantly fights back. Some people would still question the victim’s actions (Why was she walking alone? How did she dress?), but research shows that almost all people would recognize such a scenario as sexual assault.
Once any of these features begin to change, however, it becomes progressively more difficult to find consensus in any large group of people. Several years ago, our lab conducted a study involving 86 male college students. Our goal was to examine some of the variables we suspected were related to a person’s ability to accurately recognize sexual assault.
The men were initially given a survey assessing their feelings towards women in general, the degree to which they endorsed sex role stereotypes, their belief in rape myths (the idea, for example, that women who wear short skirts are inviting sexual assault), and their overall acceptance of violence as a normal part of sexuality. They were then presented with brief written scenarios, all of which depicted sexual assault in varying circumstances. The stories included rape in the context of a marriage, rape in a dating relationship, a rape while the victim was intoxicated, a rape of a hitchhiker, and a sexual assault at a college party where the victim had been drinking. Each situation clearly fit the legal definition of sexual assault, and all included penetration against the woman’s wishes.
Tellingly, perceptions of these vignettes varied widely among the men participating in our study, and men who described themselves as accepting violence as a normal part of sexuality were particularly unable to recognize the different scenarios as sexual assault.
Perceptions of sexual intent in other people also vary widely. Studies as far back as the 1980s demonstrated that men perceive sexual interest in the ambiguous behaviors of others — that is, those behaviors that could be perceived as either merely friendly or potentially seductive — far more often than women. And in a more recent study, our lab had over 380 college men rate how much sexual intent they perceived in a 30-second video clip of a soda commercial, which involved a man and woman sitting at a bus stop, and concluded with the man offering the woman a soda.
We then exposed our study subjects to fake peer messages that either condemned sexual violence, contained neutral messages, or normalized sexual violence. Lastly, we had the men read a short story about a man and a woman meeting at a bar, attending a party, and eventually engaging in kissing and petting. In the story, the woman tries to stop the interaction just before intercourse is about to commence. At this point, we asked the men in the study to rate how likely they would be to use coercion to engage the woman in more petting, oral sex, or vaginal intercourse if they found themselves in this situation.
Overall, 26 percent of men responded with varying degrees of likelihood that they would attempt to coerce the woman in these circumstances. More tellingly, the men who had both over-perceived the sexual intent of the woman in the television commercial, and were exposed to messages that suggested peer support for sexual coercion, were twice as likely to say they’d attempt coercion with the hypothetical woman. This finding persisted even after we controlled for the men’s self-reported desire to have sexual intercourse, or their previous experiences with being sexually coercive.
No one really knows what’s going on in Donald Trump’s mind, but his words alone suggest that he, like some of our test subjects, misperceives the level of sexual intent and interest in women he encounters. And like most of us, he probably surrounds himself with people who think like him, or at least who don’t actively contradict his perceptions — an echo chamber of peer support for his words and behaviors.
Taken together, it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump seems to view his boasts of sexually assaulting women — and make no mistake, what he describes is sexual assault — as well as his penchant for issuing demeaning comments about women that he doesn’t view as potential sexual conquests, as perfectly normal.
“Such a nasty woman,” said Trump, leaning into his microphone, of his debate opponent last night.
Of course, cultural norms around sexual aggression are constantly changing, and the past several years have opened up an unprecedented public discourse on the topic of rape and sexual assault — from college campuses to the nation’s boardrooms. No one could have predicted, of course, that the race for the office of the president of the United States would also expose — and do it so starkly — the lingering levels of hostility and sexism that part of the American population still harbors toward women. And yet, here we are.
If anything, Trump’s own inability to understand the meaning of his words offers us a sobering truth: These attitudes are not limited to people on the fringes of society.
Sarah Edwards is an Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of North Dakota. Her research focuses on interpersonal aggression.