Donald Trump and What Men Say When They Think Women Won't Hear

Even if what Trump said was uniquely cavalier and disgusting, it does seem to be on the spectrum with what other straight men might say or hear at some point in their lives.

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Oct 10 2016, 8:30pm

When Donald Trump dismissed his 2005 boast about being able to grab women "by the pussy" as mere "locker room talk" at the presidential debate Sunday night, it had a depressing ring of truth, or at least plausibility. In the past few years, the atmosphere of casual and often violent misogyny women have always swum through has become impossible even for men to ignore. Sexual assault on college campuses has been the subject of intense national debate, and an obscene percentage of mass shootings in America end up being stories about straight men killing the women in their lives. It didn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine this was the sort of thing that does, in fact, routinely get said in locker rooms—or in Trump's case, an Access Hollywood bus.

Like nearly everyone, I spent the weekend talking to friends and acquaintances about the Trump tape. The straight men I spoke to made sure to distance themselves from the Republican nominee, but didn't exactly find what he said shocking. "We all do the locker room shit, but this is next level because he's explicitly joking about sexual assault," one friend told me Saturday. Another said he was disgusted but largely just because he already hated Trump—and insisted this kind of thing gets said in hip-hop and other cultural contexts all the time, and no one bats an eye. He could easily imagine his own friends going there and in fact has heard them come awful close, the second friend added.

"I've heard this kind of talk a lot in male-dominated situations and failed to call people out on their shit," a third friend in his late 20s g-chatted me. "I'll be sure to not make that mistake in the future."

So even if what Trump said was uniquely cavalier and disgusting, it does seem to be on the spectrum with what some other straight men might say or hear at some point in their lives. The problem for him stems, in no small part, from the fact that as women speak out about sexual assault in record numbers and once-beloved male icons like Bill Cosby are (possibly) brought to justice, social mores appear to be changing. What was within the bounds of regular human interaction as recently as a decade or two ago simply doesn't fly anymore.

"There are plenty of other guys who are out there, whether we think of them as captains of industry or folks who are prominent in entertainment, who would probably agree with Trump and probably have said [roughly] the same thing he has," says Andrew Smiler, an expert on normative aspects of sexual development and masculinity in particular, whose new book is Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy.

The good news, according to Smiler, is that this is partly a generational thing, with men born since the 1980s more likely to be aghast at Trump. "It's really just a small percentage of the male population that talks about women that way or sex that way in the locker rooms," he told me.

Women, meanwhile, have been reacting to Trump's comments with a mix of anger, fear, and sadness. Sexual-assault survivors tweeted their stories en masse this weekend, and responses from the women I know ranged from a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach to seething rage.

"All I could think about was how I would feel if I were an 18-year-old contestant in Miss Universe and the pageant owner shoved his slimy tongue in my mouth and grabbed my crotch," one friend in her early 30s texted me. "How many times has this dirtbag gotten away with pawing a breast or sliding his hand up a thigh because he's rich and famous? Yeah, it makes me mad."

"The video really affected me viscerally," another friend texted. "Other things he's said and done have been upsetting too, obviously, but I've had more emotional distance from them. I also think the accumulation of all of this stuff has just started to weigh on me. I had a hard time focusing on my real life and job over the past few days because he taking up so much space in my brain right now."

Some women I spoke to took pains to convey a lack of surprise. This is Donald Trump, after all.

"I don't know if I had an immediate reaction of horror or disgust because I have always found him horrific and disgusting," one colleague in her mid 20s told me. "I think that the tapes and the language demonstrate the importance of decorum, which is a boring and conservative thing to say, but sometimes conventions are conventions for a reason."

The reaction to the tape, in some ways, shows just how quickly social customs can advance—there was a time not so long ago, unfortunately, when men saying gross shit wasn't in the least remarkable.

"If we had found the tapes in the mid 1990s, we would not have responded in the way we have for these," Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at NYU and expert on gender and adolescent development, said in an email. "We have changed as a culture over the past five years in terms of being more aware of and responsive to the abusive ways in which men speak about and treat women."

If there's a silver lining in the plethora of stories about sexual violence that have swamped America this year, it's that we at least aren't sweeping the bad behavior of men under the rug to the same extent anymore. Just as the various accusations against Bill Clinton would be even more damaging today, so would all Trump's grotesque ranting about wanting to fuck Princess Diana.

"Trump's behavior suggests to me that he is not only a lech (and likely worse) with women, but a man who needs to boast about it to other men," Adelle Waldman, whose first novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P skewered ostensibly feminist literary men, wrote me. "I think there is an insecurity and neediness mixed with his predatory behavior. He is temperamentally different from a type of man who pretends to be decent but is secretly a rapist or abuser of women—Trump can't even pretend to be decent because he needs his 'successes' to be known, hence the tasteless boasting that ironically makes him seem pathetic and juvenile, rather than the alpha he so desperately wants to be."

Trump's talent in both his celebrity career and his campaign has been his ability to read an audience. On the bus 11 years ago, he gauged—perhaps correctly—that Billy Bush wanted to hear the gross tales of an unrepentant 59-year-old pussy hound. Onstage Sunday, the forum had changed, and so had the country. It was only natural that Trump's tactics change, too: He had the chutzpah to play the role of an outraged ally, inviting women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct (and, in one case, rape) to be his guests. Even Trump knows that, maybe more than ever before, America hates a harasser.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

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