How It Feels to Watch Trump as a Sexual Abuse Survivor
What I've realized from my own healing from sexual abuse is that anger has its place. Let's not be afraid to be angry.
Since Donald Trump said during Sunday's debate that he had never groped a woman without her consent, multiple women came forward to accuse him of making unwanted advances that sometimes edged into actual sexual assault. In the past few days, the country has heard allegations about the Republican presidential candidate barging into a beauty pageant dressing room, lunging at a People writer and forcing his tongue down her throat, and grabbing a stranger's breasts on an airplane. These accusations, all of which Trump and his campaign deny strenuously, are being made by women knowing full well that this powerful man (and his rabid social media followers) will do everything he can in his power to humiliate them.
First Lady Michelle Obama spoke for many women on Thursday when she said, of Trump's 2005 remarks about grabbing women's pussies, "I can't stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn't have predicted... It would be dishonest and disingenuous to me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream."
The silver lining to this national nightmare is that it seems that assault survivors, maybe inspired by the increasing attention paid to the bad behavior of famous and powerful men, are more often breaking the silence that so often follows sexual violation. I know something about that silence, because I experienced an incident of sexual abuse when I was a child. I didn't tell a soul until I was 18.
Earlier this week I wrote a calm, clinical essay about Trump's consistent alleged abuse of women. When I showed it to a friend, she said, "Where's the emotion?" I wanted to stay factual because I was afraid of being called an "angry woman." This is what happens to survivors of sexual abuse: We suppress anger. We blame ourselves for what happened. It feels like having an invisible gag around your neck, something that is constricting your throat and telling you that it's better to just move on, forget about it, pretend it didn't happen.
If you're asking yourself why these women waited—as many Trump supporters have been—think about it: Would you enjoy telling the world about the time a powerful man groped you, in the process perhaps inviting him to come after you? Even if your abuser is not rich and famous, it can be a terrifying experience to tell anyone about your violation. Speaking out takes huge courage, and that courage needs to be recognized.
I've been researching the links between sexual violation and emotional and physical health because I'm writing a memoir about my own journey to heal the after effects of sexual abuse. Men and women who experience sexual violation often face years of feeling damaged, alone, and unlovable. Survivors struggle to enjoy sex and to form trusting bonds in intimacy. One in three women who are raped contemplate suicide, and about one in ten rape victims actually attempt suicide. There's a growing body of evidence that rape and sexual abuse negatively impact physical health, too. Recovery from sexual assault and abuse is possible, and it takes effort, courage, money, and often years.
Obviously, sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious subjects, but whether or not Trump is guilty of everything he's been accused of, he has a well-established pattern of joking about these acts. He didn't just boast about being able to assault women (when he was 59!), he went on to dismiss those boasts as "locker room talk" and the controversy over the tape as a "distraction," a word that angered me as a survivor—sexual abuse or assault is not a "distraction" if you are on the receiving end of it. He's also bragged about being able to walk in on women at beauty pageants, allegedly made demeaning comments to women on The Apprentice, jokingly told 14-year-old girls he'd be dating them in a couple of years, and laughed about being called a sexual predator on The Howard Stern Show. He sees nothing wrong with this sort of talk.
What I've realized from my own healing from sexual abuse is that anger has its place. Let's not be afraid to be angry. Anger is a chance to draw a boundary, to say no more, to say back off. So it is with righteous anger that I say it's inconceivable that we have even gotten to this point. A vote for Trump tells other people this behavior is OK. We look to a president for inspiration; from Trump, we get "grab them by the pussy." Billy Bush, who egged Trump on during that now famous 2005 conversation, has been suspended by the Today Show. We shouldn't hold talk-show hosts to a higher standard than we do presidential nominees. People left supporting Trump should be taking a long look at not just their candidate, but themselves.
Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and she's at work on a memoir called Wet. She also teaches transformative tango in Buenos Aires to help women reconnect with lost parts of themselves. Check out her work at sashacagen.com.