Some Numbers On Sexual Assault
It’s now twelve days since tape surfaced of Donald Trump bragging he could grab women’s genitals without their consent and get away with it because he was a star, and eleven days since he defended the remarks by saying it was just ‘locker room talk.’
The response from men (who I really like!) on the left was immediate and unanimous, and has pretty much set the tone for the media’s take on the subject.
President Obama said Trump’s comments ‘[were] something no decent person would even think, let alone say.’
Trevor Noah said ‘It’s not the locker room motherfucker, it’s you!’
And I want to say they’re all absolutely right.
The speed and the vociferousness with which they’ve sought to distance themselves from those comments, to portray the words as not merely abhorrent (which they were) but aberrant, should maybe give us pause.
Why? Because of the maths.
284,000 people are sexually assaulted in the US each year, and 1 in 6 American women have been the target of a rape or attempted rape. Numbers for the UK, adjusting for population are similar. Those numbers are sickening, but widely known and often quoted. What’s less often talked about is the corollary:
·With about 125 million adult women in America, 1 in 6 gives you 20 million attempted or completed rapes.
· That doesn’t necessarily equate to 20 million attackers. A 2004 study of men whose self-described behaviour met the legal definition of attempted rape concluded that such men would attempt around 6 attacks each, but-
· That still works out at 3.6 million actual or attempted rapists.
Or around 1 in every 30 adult American men.
Now, that’s not a precise number by any means - some perpetrators will have been under 18, some others will have died since their crime, which will push the average down, some of the attacks will involve more than one assailant, and some of the survivors will have been attacked more than once, which will push the average up -but it gives us a ballpark to work in. 1 in 30 - You think they’re all guys like Trump? Orange, repellent septuagenarian lizard men who buy beauty pageants so they can walk in on the contestants changing?
No. They’re guys like your dad and your brother, your friends. They’re guys like you and me.
And that’s tough to accept. I get it. I don’t for a minute doubt the sincerity of the disgust in the reactions I cited above. Trump’s comments disgust me too, but that doesn’t mean I can entirely agree with Noah when he says ‘It’s not the locker room motherfucker, it’s you.’
Because it is the locker room. And the bus stop, and the building site and the school yard. They might not be expressed in the same transparently grim terms as Trump used, but sentiments like his are far more widespread than we’d like to admit.
Now, of course “widespread” is not the same as “universal”, or even “in the majority”, and it certainly doesn’t mean acceptable - being widespread makes those sentiments worse, not better - but however you cut them, the numbers remain stark.
284,000 assaults, 20 million rapes, 1 in 30 men. The only way we can have gotten to numbers like that is by teaching a lot of ordinary men and boys that attitudes like those Trump expressed are okay.
Here’s the thing though: the guys (and it is mostly guys) who will commit next year’s 284,000 assaults aren’t lost causes. They aren’t predestined by some Trump-like character flaw to be sexual predators. They will bear final accountability for their actions, of course, but the accountability for creating the environment which makes them feel justified in that action, which lets them tell themselves ‘it’s not sexual assault; it’s just what guys do’? That’s on all of us.
Especially us men, because generally speaking we’re the ones they’re looking to impress when they talk like that.
I am a long, long way from being the first person to say this, of course. Thousands of women got there first. Sociologist Danielle Dirks wrote that Trump’s comments ‘Perfectly illustrate what feminists mean when they talk about rape culture”, and as a response to the tape, author Kelly Oxford invited women to share stories of their assaults on Twitter, and received nearly 29 million responses.
And I confess, I’m not entirely comfortable posting this. I don’t expect it to come as news to any women reading it, and I certainly don’t harbour any ambition to speak over, or for them about their experience. But on this specific aspect of the problem, I can’t help but feel like it’s men who need to talk to each other.
Because it’s our uncomfortable silence that gets taken as complicity, our nervous laughter that gets taken as permission. So we have to withhold that permission, to push back, and not just in blog posts and TV spots that our liberal friends can pat us on the back for, and that can win us cheap credit for talking inexpertly about an issue that women have been raising all their lives (and yes I’m aware of the irony).
Those blog posts and TV spots can help, and to be clear, I’m not having a go at Noah, Kluwe et al. I hope and expect that seeing these famous men push back on Trump’s comments in public will make the guys who admire them more likely to push back on comments like them in private, but it is still in private where we most need to push back - when it’s hard, when it might make us less popular or make our friends feel bad. The accumulation of all those little conversations, those tiny nudges, that’s where the culture changes.
That’s where we have a responsibility, and if we let ourselves pretend that Trump’s comments were indicative of a problem with Trump and Trump alone, we’re ducking it