We’ve Always Placed National Security Above Women’s Bodily Autonomy
During Sunday’s presidential debate, it was clear that Donald Trump would be asked to comment on the tape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz were keen to press him for a better explanation — if such a thing even exists — than this being “locker room talk,” a turn-of-phrase as euphemistic as “boys will be boys.”
But instead of offering any real apology or explanation, Trump insisted again and again that our focus on his sexually violent banter prevented us from tackling more important issues, such as defending the country against ISIS:
“We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world. Can you imagine the people that are frankly doing so well against us with ISIS? And they look at our country and see what’s going on. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS . . .”
He argued his apology was sufficient and “We should get on to much more important things and much bigger things.”
My personal Twitter universe was angry. And the tenor of the tweets, Facebook comments, and articles I saw circulating afterwards was also one of surprise, which in turn, surprised me. The collective feeling appeared to be that this was an outrageous thing to say. Why did Trump think he could get away with it?
In fact, you can’t separate the harm ISIS is doing from sexual assault. The heinous acts of rape and trafficking perpetrated against women as part of ISIS’ sadistic doctrine and control are well-documented; look no further than this New York Times article to bear witness to the depth and width of their interconnectedness:
“A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.”
But the problem doesn’t just lie with willful ignorance of the connection between sexual assault and ISIS. The problem resides at home; the truth is, the belief that sexual violence is less important than national security has long plagued America, to the extent that sexual assault has been accepted as a natural extension of military warfare.
True, the rape of women has been used to justify war, but only in the sense that women’s bodies are the property of men, and other men have violated and sullied that property. Or, in the case of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the alleged “barbaric” treatment of women as an abstract concept was used to reinforce our own patriotic attitudes.
“Now the country is changing,” President George W. Bush explained in 2004 in Appleton, Wisconsin. “There’s women’s rights. There’s equality under the law. Young girls now go to school, many for the first time ever, thanks to the United States and our coalition of liberators.”
But how much can America really care about those Iraqi and Afghan women, when our very occupation of those countries has brought profound instability and even sexual violence to their lives, and when we continuously ignore what’s happening to them? To cite but one example, more than 5,000 cases of violence (includes 241 murders) against Afghan women were reported in the first half of 2016, according to a report from the British government.
America has proven time and time again that it doesn’t care about helping women; it cares about men protecting their own values, masculinity, and national pride.
Another chilling example of America’s prioritization of national pride over sexual assault is our military’s long-standing epidemic of sexual abuse against female service members.
A 2012 Pentagon report found that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact. Although the Pentagon set up a new special office for victims of sexual assault and has addressed the issue of sexual assault more publicly over the past few years, in part thanks to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s work to bring attention to the issue, Pentagon reports show that survivors continue to experience retaliation after reporting their sexual assaults. Thousands of those survivors were then summarily pushed out of the military and given a less-than-honorable discharge.
Political figures also seek to represent sexual assault in the military as inevitable. In 2013, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss said something needed to be done about sexual assault in the military — although he was short on specifics — but then added, “Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we’ve got to be very careful how we address it on our side.” Trump made a similar comment in 2013, claiming sexual assault is to be expected when you have a mix of men and women serving in the military.
And then there’s the ubiquitous sexual violence committed against civilians. The horrific gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, by American soldiers, as well as the murder of her family beforehand, as one sickening example, has mostly faded from our cultural memory.
In our own media narrative, Americans occupied our collective rage as the victims of this war — an expensive war where indeed many Americans died — but we rarely acknowledge Iraqi and Afghan victims, especially those who experienced sexual violence.
Five men were charged in connection with the gang rape, murder, and cover-up of the crime. Defense attorneys referenced the stressful conditions of war and “low morale that resulted,” according to a 2006 CNN article on the case. They pointed to this testimony from the soldiers, which highlighted their depression and chronic fear as a means to justify what had transpired:
“‘Everybody was very depressed,’ a colleague of the defendants, Pfc. Justin Cross, testified Tuesday, adding the drinking was an ‘outlet.’ ‘I couldn’t sleep mainly for fear we would be attacked,’ he said. ‘It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up . . . You’re just walking a death walk.’”
The message is clear: The rape and murder of a young woman is perhaps not justified, but it is understandable when those who’ve abused women have been confronted with the harrowing truths of war. These men’s actions were unfortunate — heinous even — but set against the backdrop of protecting our national security, they were by our own admission defendable.
Throughout history — America is but one culprit, of course — women’s bodies have been pivotal instruments of war; they’re used to humiliate men, to tear apart families, to spread instability throughout a region. They’re also used to soothe male soldiers, whose stories continue to take superiority over those of women.
In this context, Trump’s comments, which elevate national security above his personal acts of sexual violence, aren’t shocking, even if they are outrageous. They represent business as usual.
We also see the minimization of sexual violence against women compared to our focus on national security in our media coverage of this race.
Trump has been accused of attempted sexual assault — and of rape multiple times — but until the release of a tape where he actually admits to sexual assault, outlets have granted these cases a fraction of the ink — virtual and otherwise — that they’ve dedicated to the “wall,” his tax evasion, or his misogynistic comments.
Certain communities were discussing these allegations — particularly progressive and feminist-leaning publications — but those aligned with him, from his Republican fanbase to his own running mate, weren’t willing to address those allegations. They literally waited until there was no other choice but to denounce him.
It seems the open acknowledgement of sexual assault was just a bridge too far.
We’ve also seen how the media prioritizes national security over women’s bodily autonomy during the presidential debates. In Hillary Clinton’s debates with Bernie Sanders, in Tim Kaine’s debates with Mike Pence, and in Hillary Clinton’s debates with Donald Trump, the issue of reproductive rights has been mostly ignored.
In the vice presidential debate, the moderator did not raise the issue, but Mike Pence did, allowing him to frame the issue first. Kaine, although he delivered a powerful line about trusting women, mostly framed abortion as, “It’s morally wrong but women should be able to make this morally wrong choice,” calling partial birth abortion “anathema to me” and repeatedly referencing his Catholic faith.
Most of the debates — while they have acknowledged Trump’s hateful rhetoric toward women — ignore policy issues that affect women’s ability to shape their economic and personal trajectories. Weak policies surrounding reproductive rights (an issue which has been rarely raised with the exception of a Sanders and Clinton debate), the control of one’s body, and the ability for a survivor to choose whether or not to bring a pregnancy from rape to term is obviously part and parcel of the very same problem.
But time and again, neither sexual assault or reproductive rights issues are raised in debate questions, as the same questions over military strategy and national security, while important, are rehashed again and again, to the point where one has to ask if they are clarifying anything to the American public anymore.
As we limp and holler our way toward November 8, we’re sure to experience this same echo chamber. We’ll see more questions on Clinton’s emails — again — and we’ll see Trump asking if she knows what “C” means. We’ll ask her — again — whether she can be trusted with issues of national security.
What we won’t see is the public acknowledgement that the sexual violence Trump aims to downplay as “locker room talk” is the very same sexual violence that grants ISIS a huge portion of its power. What we won’t see is a public acknowledgement that America has offered gender-based violence on the altar of national security since its inception.
Trump is right about one thing: “This world has serious problems.”
And at the crux of it is sexual assault.
Lead image: modified from flickr/Nicolas Raymond and istockphoto.com