The Conversation We’re Not Having About Rape

The problem is much bigger than Trump—so why aren’t we talking about it?

“The Rape Election”—that’s what a Washington Post article recently dubbed this presidential election. Donald Trump’s rapid downfall in the polls has hinged on his boasts about groping women and revelations of how often he put his words into action.

Certainly this is not the first time that rape or sexual assault allegations have overwhelmed a candidate’s political aspirations. On the contrary—accusations of sexual misconduct frequently punctuate contentious political battles.

Perhaps what makes the issue more prominent than in past campaigns is the unapologetic way in which women alleging sexual assault have seen their stories exploited for political purposes. Moments before the second debate, Donald Trump paraded several women who have accused Bill Clinton of rape and sexual misconduct, and Hillary Clinton of depraved indifference, in front of the press. His hope: to rattle Hillary and deflect attention away from the video in which he brags about forcing himself on women and how his fame allowed him to “grab ‘em by the pussy.”

At the same time, those attempting to further derail Trump have welcomed the continued barrage of rape, assault and maniacal groping allegations against the Republican nominee. Trump’s response—while “standing up” for the Clintons’ accusers—has been to repeatedly disparage his own accusers, employing the same tactics that have been used to propagate sexual violence for centuries.

He has rejected their claims by arguing that they were not attractive enough to assault. “Look at her,” said Trump to a roaring crowd in response to People writer Natasha Stoynoff’s most recent allegations. “You tell me what you think. I don’t think so.”

He has excused his actions by implying that the women asked for it. He barely bothered denying the story of Jessica Drake, a porn actress and his twelfth accuser of the election season, instead saying, “Oh, I’m sure she’s never been grabbed before.”

And now he plans on suing these women.

But for all this talk of Trump’s past abuse of women, the broader issues underlying sexual violence have been sadly absent from this election. A “rape election” would treat sexual violence as a critical policy problem. Candidates would take seriously recent statistics showing that one in six women will have experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. That 18- to 24-year-olds, regardless of gender, are far more likely to be the victims of sexual violence than any other age group. That, among college students, one in five women and one in sixteen men report having been sexually assaulted on campus and that these incidences mostly go unreported.

But these statistics showing the prevalence of sexual violence have attracted little of the public and political outrage that Trump’s behavior has invoked. On the contrary, they inspire distrust. When stories and statistics of sexual assault and rape involving “regular people” appear in the news, we see skepticism instead of shock. Miles of text are spent debunking statistics on sexual violence. When President Obama took to the airwaves at the Grammys to ask Americans to help stop sexual violence, fact checkers of all stripes questioned the credibility of his data. When a woman states that she has been raped in response to an anonymous survey, reporters ask, is it really rape?

If she is drunk when it happens, does it count? After all, Stanford University student Brock Turner was sentenced to only six months of jail time, and served only three, after he decided to have sex with a woman who had passed out from intoxication. And an Oklahoma court recently argued that “forcible sodomy cannot occur where a victim is so intoxicated as to be completely unconscious at the time.”

For some reason, many Americans respond to stories of sexual assault and rape as if they are less credible than reports of other violent behavior. Rather than empathizing with the victims, skeptics fixate on legal distinctions and attempt to poke holes in their stories.

Regardless of whether these stories or statistics would pass legal muster, those who feel they have been violated are forever changed by their experiences. People who report having been a victim of rape or sexual assault are thirteen times more likely to have attempted suicide than non-crime victims. Rates of drug abuse among those who believe they have been raped or sexually assaulted are staggering. And the stress of these experiences impacts their relationships at home, at work, and at school long after the assault.

Instead of simply showcasing women at presidential debates or promoting their stories to fuel partisan rancor, a “rape election” would grapple with the challenges our legal system imposes for victims of sexual assault. For instance, we would see candidates confronting the legal standards used in rape cases. States vary considerably in whether they require evidence of force in rape cases (such as the use or threat of a weapon or physical violence apart from the rape) or whether a lack of consent from the victim is sufficient to prove rape. In many cases the force standard misses the point. For victims of sexual assault, the unwanted sexual act is the force. When a person is too intoxicated, for instance, or is otherwise unable to control or protect his or her body from unwanted sexual advances, sexual aggression alone is violent.

Certainly there is precedent for presidential intervention into the definition of rape. The Obama administration in 2012 changed the definition of rape used in national criminal data collection to include any incidence in which “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Will a Trump or Clinton presidency follow the same principle? Will they work with states to adopt a similar definition?

And, of course, acts of sexual assault and violence do more than just offend the rule of law. They rupture a person’s bodily autonomy. They violate the very core of a person’s privacy and control—the ability to dictate the parameters of their own physical intimacy.

To that end, candidate proposals in a “rape election” would reach beyond the courtroom.

In a 2014 report, the White House Council on Women and Girls stressed the significance of extra-legal investments in rape and sexual assault services. “Even at its best,” argued the council, “the criminal justice system is a limited remedy for the harm many victims have suffered.” Even with increased federal support, though, rape crisis centers are still over capacity. In some cases, those needing help are placed on a months-long waiting list. How will a President Clinton or President Trump respond to this shortfall in service delivery?

A “rape election” wouldn’t just fixate on the behavior of the candidates. It would ask us to condemn all acts of sexual violence. It would replace the knee-jerk suspicion that accompanies stories of rape and sexual assault with a collective outrage over its persistence. I, for one, would welcome a “rape election,” but this isn’t it.

Alison Gash

Alison Gash is the author of Below the Radar: How Silence Can Save Civil Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015). Her work on LGBTQ rights has also appeared in Politico, Newsweek, Slate, Huffington Post and The Conversation. She is an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Oregon. Views expressed are solely her own and are not meant to represent those of the University of Oregon.