In fury surrounding Trump allegations, signs of a changing America

Donald Trump's campaign is reeling following sexual assault accusations that have surfaced following the release of a 2005 video in which Trump implied that his status allowed him to take liberties with women. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer during a campaign rally at the South Florida Fairgrounds and Convention Center, on Thursday, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Nearly a week after a 2005 video surfaced of Donald Trump bragging to an interviewer that his star status allowed him to get away with sexually assaulting women, more women are coming forward with accusations of sexual misconduct by the Republican presidential candidate.

The recording of Mr. Trump engaging in what he characterized as “locker room banter” with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush has opened the door for a host of accusations that the real estate mogul and reality television star's faltering campaign can ill afford, while also reflecting shifting social norms in US society.

“The more we talk about sexual violence, the more barriers to reporting crimes are removed, because there’s more accurate information about how these crimes are perpetrated,” says Jennifer Long, the CEO of AEquitas, a resource organization for those who seek justice in cases of violence against women.

After the video of Trump surfaced, at least four women have accused Trump of groping them or forcibly kissing them on the mouth. The women were different in age and life station when they claim they were subject to Trump’s unwanted advances, but their reactions were similar – silence.

The New York Times reports that the youngest of them, Rachel Crooks, was a secretary at a business located in Trump Tower when, she says, Trump cornered her in an elevator. Afraid of losing her job, she stayed silent.

Businesswoman Jessica Leeds says that she was seated beside Trump on an airplane in the early 1980s when he touched her “like an octopus.” Ms. Leeds says that she did not report the incident at the time because Trump’s behavior was not uncommon, and women were taught that it was their fault.

Trump has issued denied these accusations, along with those of former pageant contestant Temple Taggart and photography assistant Mindy McGillivray, but his denials have done little to quell the growing outrage. 

While instances of sexual violence or assault on both male and female victims, particularly by figures in power, were once often ignored or not reported, experts say that momentum has been gathering among anti-sexual violence advocates since the 1970s.

Sexual norms, and societal conceptions of sexual assault, are changing says Stephanie Nawyn, the co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Gender in Global Context.

Ideas of what sexual consent is have changed dramatically over the last several decades, shifting from the more simple “no means no” definition to affirmative consent, sexual consent derived from confirmation that both parties agree to the sexual contact rather than simply not “saying no.”

“It is evident that people are coming to understand that prevention is everyone’s responsibility, and that is why we are heartened at the public outrage we have witnessed during the past few years – outrage at lenient sentences, inappropriate comments, and victim-blaming statements made by judges, public figures, attorneys and other community leaders, and numerous other demonstrations of rape culture,” says National Sexual Violence Resource Center communications director Laura Palumbo in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. 

Public reactions to campus rape cases such as the Stanford rape case and celebrity assault accusations such as those leveraged against actor Bill Cosby bear witness to these changing norms. 

Media expert and academic Gemma Puglisi, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication, says that social media and the greater coverage and access it creates have helped to open the door for individuals who might once have been silent victims to share their stories.

One journalist experimented with social media’s influence last Friday, when she tweeted out a request for women to share their first sexual assault stories. By Saturday morning, she was receiving more than 50 responses per minute with the hashtag #notokay.

“We see evidence that the shame and stigma that has silenced victims for centuries is finally crumbling; one needs to look no further than the #notok, #ithappenedtome, #whyIstayed and #FreeKesha hashtags on Twitter that demonstrate support for victims and thousands of survivors emboldened to tell their stories,” says Ms. Palumbo.

As the conversation grows, and stigma of sharing stories of sexual assault lessens, reported instances of sexual assault are also dropping. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that the rate of sexual assault and rape fell 74 percent between 1993 and 2014. Still, the organization reports that one in every six women, and one in every 33 men, experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes.

The progress is incremental, Ms. Long says, but any step forward is a positive one.

“Some days it feels like we’re making progress, and some days it feels like it is 30 years ago. But the important thing is that we’re trying to make a positive change.”

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