Prepare to Be Triggered: Sexual Assault Survivors Gird Themselves for Debate

(Photo: AP/Richard Drew)

Women protest Donald Trump and the GOP in front of Trump Tower in New York on October 18, 2016.

If the second presidential debate of the 2016 campaign season was tough to watch for those who have been sexually assaulted, tonight’s debate in Las Vegas between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could be one epic trigger.

The October 9 debate, which took place two days after the Republican presidential nominee was revealed to have boasted in 2005—in the crudest of terms—about grabbing random women by their genitals, would have been hard to watch under any circumstances. Trump compounded the difficulty with a pre-debate stunt featuring women who accuse former President Bill Clinton of sexual transgressions (including rape), and one rape survivor who accuses Hillary Clinton of callous behavior in Clinton’s 1975 legal defense of the alleged perpetrator, who was convicted of a lesser charge. As brutal as that all was to take in, tonight’s installment in the three-debate series could be worse.

The thing to understand about the trauma suffered by those who have experienced sexual assault is that it often stems not only from the event itself but, in many cases, also from not being believed. And ever since the October 7 release of the now-infamous video footage of Trump talking to then–Access Hollywood host Billy Bush on a studio bus, a legion of women has come forward to accuse Trump of just the kind of behavior he describes to Bush. Trump has gone on the offensive, telling the audiences at his raucous rallies that the women accusing him are not to be believed, despite corroborating evidence that has emanated from his own forked tongue. Why? Because according to him they’re not attractive enough to have warranted such an assault at his hands.

Trump also, in 2005, boasted to radio host Howard Stern how, as part-owner of the Miss Universe beauty pageant franchise, he used his position to justify walking in on the dressing rooms of pageant contestants—some of them teenagers—when he knew they were unclothed. Several of those contestants have noted their personal experience of Trump’s self-proclaimed prerogative.

If Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace does his job properly as he moderates a debate that is truly historic, Trump will be challenged on all of these claims. Those watching who have endured a sexual assault have best gird themselves for Trump’s counterassault on his accusers and, consequently, on anyone who has ever been assaulted and either not believed, or blamed, for what was done to her.

A 1998 report by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in six American women was a victim of either rape or attempted rape in her lifetime—and that’s just rape. Using Trump’s parlance, women who had been grabbed “by the p*ssy” would not be part of that cohort. Neither would the beauty contestants barged in on, or the People magazine writer who says Trump pinned her up against a wall at his Mar-a-Lago estate and shoved his tongue down her throat.

Of writer Natasha Stoyoff, the woman who made the latter claim, Trump said at an October 13 rally in West Palm Beach, Florida: “Take a look. You look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don't think so. I don't think so.”

Every time such words are spoken in national media—and embraced by hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters—people who know the re-traumatization of society’s gaslighting in matters of sexual assault revisit the shame visited upon them by that disbelief. I know that feeling. In 1978, I was raped by an acquaintance, and didn’t even bother to report it. The term “acquaintance rape” wasn’t even a thing then. I was in college, there was a party going on in my apartment—why would I even have tried to seek justice?

And that’s not to mention all the other countless “lesser” transgressions that I, like some many women, have endured. The butt-grabbing by strangers on the street, the creep who rubs up on you in the subway, the otherwise sweet colleague who asks you for a hug, and then hugs a little too tightly.

It’s been a rough few weeks—not just for me, but probably half of the female U.S. population, and a portion of the male who bear the psychic scars of sexual transgression.

Tonight’s, as Bette Davis once said, could be one bumpy ride. If only it weren’t so historic, I’d be inclined not to watch. But it’s the final presidential debate in which the first woman nominee of a major political party will face off against a male opponent—one who boasts of his sexual hostility toward women. You bet I’ll be watching—and gritting my teeth through the night that follows.

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