Let’s Not Talk About Sex Tonight

The topic of sex will come up in tonight’s Presidential debate. It shouldn’t. I’m not saying that because it won’t result in compelling (if uncomfortable) television. I’m saying that because nobody — least of all the most important voting bloc in this election — has any interest in having to sit through that conversation.

The only way to avoid a conversation about what Donald Trump has said about women, or the attacks that he will level against Secretary Clinton in response, is to tune out. Don’t watch tonight’s debate. Don’t read the newspaper. Don’t spend any time online. You can probably re-emerge sometime in mid-November if we are lucky.

The media, have decided this will be a big issue. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns seem unable, or unwilling, to shift the focus to other issues. Presumably there is a segment of the American electorate who does consider these issues relevant to this campaign and who they decide to support in November. The rest of the voters are just collateral damage.

There is nothing defensible about Donald Trump’s comments. That is true for what he said in 2005 on the tape that is making headlines this weekend. That is also true when it comes to the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and factually incorrect statements that he has continually made over the past two years while campaigning. I think people need to be aware of what he says and how he has acted so that they can make informed decisions about how to vote. I also recognize that there are a LOT of voters out there who do endorse what Donald Trump believes and think Hillary Clinton is a far worse alternative.

Most voters, I believe, don’t want to have a discussion about sex at all, believing that it is neither relevant nor appropriate for the presidential campaign. At the top of that list are young voters.

So why continue to have this conversation? Young voters will decide this election. Right now, they are so disillusioned with the political process, a situation that is only being made worse by the ongoing discussion about these issues, that many are choosing to participate at all. This is not just the negative tone of politics today — a lot of young voters just think this is a bad topic to consume so much of the campaign’s energy.

The steady stream of indefensible comments made by Donald Trump throughout this campaign has done little to motivate young voters to support Secretary Clinton. The personal attacks leveled by Donald Trump against Secretary Clinton have not moved the needle in terms of encouraging young people to participate — register, get involved, vote and the like. More of the same will not likely result in a different outcome either. More of those conversations aren’t going to help matters.

To win, Secretary Clinton needs to make a genuine connection with young voters on her own — she cannot rely on the eroding credibility of her opponent to make that happen for her. And while I don’t see a scenario under which Donald Trump can win enough support on his own to become President, there is a very real chance he could find a way to prevent Secretary Clinton from earning the votes she needs — and to do that he will need to maintain some semblance of credibility as a candidate, or risk pushing people away (and into the arms of the Democrats). More conversation about sex and related issues aren’t going to achieve that goal for either candidate.

Donald Trump’s comments demeaning women are not having a major influence on young voters. Why not? Sexual violence is disturbingly common in high school and college and most young people say that not enough is done to combat the problem. Additionally, public views about sex, sexuality and infidelity are changing — and in the case of infidelity, they are softening (I posted some stats below about this FYI). I think young voters do not consider these issues a big enough deal to impact their level of engagement with the political process, nor do I think they have faith in the candidates, or the political system, to address these issues even if they were being properly addressed.

Young voters are neither surprised nor sufficiently disturbed by the comments made by Donald Trump demeaning women to be motivated to take action. They recognize that Secretary Clinton has worked on these issues all her life, but that still doesn’t compel them to trust or like her in an over-arching way. Young voters want the candidates do more to address the issues that matter most to their lives — talk directly to them, listen to their needs, and focus on solutions, not just trade attacks. Young voters prioritize issues like the economy, education, climate change… almost anything else. That doesn’t mean sexual violence or the host of related issues aren’t important. They absolutely are. That doesn’t mean young voters don’t care about these issues. They absolutely do. Young voters just don’t want that discussion to consume the presidential election, especially not the discusison as it is currently constructed.

If there is going to be a discussion about sex and sexual violence, young voters prefer the focus to be on what specifically can be done to address these issues, how to stop rape from happening, how to support victims without shaming them, how to eliminate sexism and advance gender equality, to generally evolve as a society. The discussion about how to fix the problem is not happening. All they hear, all we ever hear, are attacks.

The only way to avoid being part of a conversation about what Donald Trump has said about women is to not participate. If the media presses the issue… if Donald Trump goes nuclear… if Hillary Clinton can’t figure out how to pivot the conversation back to something more constructive... then don’t be surprised when young voters choose to spend their time watching something else. Don’t blame young voters for not being engaged — instead, consider not talking about sex during tonight’s debate.

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Some statistics just to have handy in case you are curious:

- 73% of millennials, including 71% of men and 75% of women, say sexual assault is somewhat or very common on college and university campuses. (81% — black millennials, 74% — white millenials, 70% Hispanic millennials, and 63% API millennials).

- 53% of millennials, say incidents of sexual assault are somewhat or very common in high schools. (70% — black millennial women and 66% of black millennial men say sexual assault is a common problem in high schools; 59% of white millennial women say sexual assault is very or somewhat common in high schools, compared to only 44% of white millennial men).

- And 60% of millennials, including 63% of women and 56% of men, say colleges or universities are not doing enough to address the problem of sexual assault and 53% of millennials, including 59% women but only 47% of men, say that high schools are not doing enough to address the issue of sexual assault. Source.

- In 2008, surveys showed that over 84% of adults reported it is always wrong for a married person to have sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner — a 20% increase since 1973. By 2014, that number had dropped to 79%. And Millennials reported the most permissive attitudes regarding marital infidelity, with 75% agreeing extramarital sex is always wrong (compared to 80% of Boomers and 82% of Gen-Xers). Source.