A Letter to My Students on the Sexual Violence of the Trump Election

A former student of mine posted to Facebook that, as a victim of sexual assault, she felt re-victimized by Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States. She went on to say:

If you voted for Trump, you hurt me and people like me, potentially in ways and to a degree we have yet to realize. You have to accept responsibility for that. It was a choice you made, and you knew you were making that choice, and you believed you had good reasons for making it, and maybe you really did. But don’t tell me and people like me that it’s our fault we’re in pain.

She made a plea for compassion and empathy, “pain is pain, and warrants compassion.”

The first two comments to her post were supportive; the third one…not so much. The commenter’s response?

I appreciate your vigor but people that voted for Trump did not hurt you. Grow up.

To my current students here at the University of Maryland, I call on you to weep with those who weep and to understand why they feel the way they do. If we as a country are going to move forward in the wake of this election, it will be through empathy.

Why would a victim of sexual assault feel re-victimized by the results of the election? The election of Trump made very clear that his open statements about sexual assault have gone unchecked, just like many of the perpetrators of sexual violence in the lives of these victims.

Sexual predators, whose actions fit every detail of forceable sexual conduct without consent detailed in Trump’s words, have repeatedly been able to get away with it and their victims are often the ones blamed. Now, a person who has claimed that he can “do whatever” he wants, like “grab them by the pussy” without their consent, has now been openly awarded the highest office in the land.

This is the normalization of sexual violence. Many victims have faced the injustice of not having their perpetrators be held accountable for their assault. This injustice is exacerbated when someone running for public office is outed as committing acts of sexual assault and yet still awarded the presidency by the votes of millions and millions of Americans. This is truly an unjust outcome.

To women like my former student and many of you reading this, such an outcome is the ultimate sign of injustice and a society that is still ruled by patriarchy and misogyny. These are the causes for women feeling re-victimized by the outcome of this election and by the choices millions of Americans made at the ballot box.

Male victims and transgender victims of sexual violence are also responding to Trump’s election. While these demographics are sometimes overlooked, 13,000 men are victims of rape in the U.S. each year, with many going unreported. The statistics for trans people are staggering: 1 in 2 transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. As the Human Rights Campaign notes:

As a community, LGBTQ people face higher rates of poverty, stigma, and marginalization, which put us at greater risk for sexual assault. We also face higher rates of hate-motivated violence, which can often take the form of sexual assault. Moreover, the ways in which society both hypersexualizes LGBTQ people and stigmatizes our relationships can lead to intimate partner violence that stems from internalized homophobia and shame.

Many of you reading this are just beginning your college careers, heading into the end of your first semester as a university student. Sexual assault at universities and colleges happens at a horrifying rate. According to recent statistics, “As many as one in four women experience sexual assault at college, though the vast majority never report it.”

Statistics from the Bureau of Justice Campus Climate Survey. Infographic from: http://endrapeoncampus.org/eroc-blog/2016/1/26/bjs-campus-climate-survey-key-highlights
Statistics from the Bureau of Justice Campus Climate Survey. Infographic from: http://endrapeoncampus.org/eroc-blog/2016/1/26/bjs-campus-climate-survey-key-highlights

I fear that the normalization of sexual violence symbolized by Trump’s election will only make things worse for many of you. We are entering an era where sexual violence has not cost its perpetrator the presidency. As it has been time and time again, we either engage in “organized forgetting” or we shift the blame.

This communicates to so many that there will be little to no consequences for acts of sexual violence. Even if it is brought to the light of day, perpetrators will receive minimal punishment — if any — and can still run for President. This is the message that the election of Donald Trump sends. It is loud. It is violent. We feel again victimized by these results.

What can we do?

To all of my students: it’s vital that you understand the concept of consent. Educate yourselves. It is key to understand the fear that so many women and LGBTQ students feel each day. For example, the terror that women face that they will be sexual assaulted on a regular basis should be eye-opening.

To my male students: sexual violence is a men’s issue, and it’s your job to know the many ways you can prevent such acts of violence. Interrogate your own feelings about women that might be contributing to the normalization of sexual violence in our society right now. Be an ally. Stand up for those being abused or sexualized without their consent. There are organizations on campus that offer ways for you to get involved, educate yourselves, and lead by example. Speak up!

In the presidential debate, Anderson Cooper asked the question to Trump, “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Trump responded, “No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. . . . It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

Words obviously don’t matter to Trump. Words like “NO!” don’t matter to sexual predators. But words do matter; words ARE actions. It is a grave mistake to not understand words as actions. For us to delegitimize words is to delegitimize the identities behind those words, to disassociate action from thought from voice.

We’ve heard Trump’s words. Now, I call on each of you to make your voices heard loudly. Stand up against sexual violence and the inexcusable way that perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. Let those around you know how this election has re-victimized many of you; how it has symbolized the misogyny that has created fear, inequality, and violence. We should all support these students by letting them know that we understand their feelings and perspectives. Let your collective views be known over these four years and stand in solidarity with one another!

The faculty here in our program are your allies and we want to support you. Come talk to us. We will listen to you. We will believe you. We will do all we can to help you.