I never thought I’d see the day when a presidential debate would cause me to run out of the room in tears. As a feminist and political junkie, I’m no stranger to feeling angry during debates. I’ve watched many politicians advocate policies that would take away my most basic rights.
As the highly-anticipated face-off between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump neared, pundits commented that, for the first time in history, this was a debate that most parents wouldn’t want their children to watch.
Instead of domestic and foreign policy, we all knew what would take center stage — the vulgar tapes of Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about groping women, which unequivocally qualifies as sexual assault.
I’d listened to the #TrumpTapes audio prior to the debate. Although the content didn’t surprise me, I’d felt physically sickened — especially by the word “grab” and by Trump’s disgusting sense of entitlement to the body of every woman he lays eyes on.
Based on my conversations with countless women over the past years — and especially over the past several days — it’s become clear to me that we all have something terrible in common. We’ve been “grabbed,” violated, and assaulted, and raped by men who believe it’s their god-given right to seize our bodies, forcing them into whatever positions they please.
Still, I felt prepared to watch the debate. It wasn’t exactly breaking news to me that Trump is a misogynist — I was glad there was raw footage for the world to see. As I watched his poll numbers rapidly drop and Republicans withdraw their endorsements, I even felt excited to watch Clinton put the final nail in Trump’s coffin.
I certainly don’t regret watching the debate, but I should have known better. I should have known that, because he and his scorched-earth campaign have nothing left to lose, Trump would behave in the most vile, sexist manner possible.
Within the first ten minutes of the debate, moderator Anderson Cooper directly addressed Trump about the tapes and pulled no punches: “You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault… You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
The Republican candidate predictably denied that his statements describe sexual assault and told Cooper he’d “misunderstood” Trump’s words. After his half-hearted apology, he chalked it up to “locker-room talk” — and the clear implication was that all men speak this way.
In an effort to calm myself, I listed all the men in my life who are reviled by this type of talk — my father, my brother, cousins, uncles, and amazing male friends. This coping exercise provided some comfort, but it wasn’t enough. I was left with the lingering feeling that I just happen to be one of the lucky ones when it comes to family members and friends. “Maybe the men in my life are an anomaly, and Trump really does represent the majority,” I texted a friend through my tears.
The final straw came when Trump brought up a widely discredited story about Clinton in her early days as a lawyer. I knew that he would gleefully shove her husband’s infidelities in her face (although that certainly didn’t make it any easier to watch), but I naively assumed that Trump would stay away from a narrative that has repeatedly been debunked.
Clinton’s critics love to tell this story and, in their falsified version, she eagerly volunteered to represent a man accused of raping a 12-year-old, secured an acquittal, and laughed at the victim years later. In reality, a judge assigned Clinton to the case and she made a request to be removed, which was denied. She wrote about the experience in her book Living History and the prosecuting attorney has corroborated her account on multiple occasions.
Clinton followed through and did her job as a defense attorney, but the defendant didn’t walk free and there’s no evidence that she laughed at the victim. A plea bargain was arranged, partially due to the request of the victim’s mother. Grainy audio recordings of Clinton discussing the case surfaced in 2014 and much of the content is unintelligible, but she described the case as “terrible.” Although laughter can be heard, it wasn’t at the expense of the victim — it was at a moment when Clinton stated that the case “forever destroyed her faith” in polygraph tests.
It was an interesting dynamic; instead of blaming the victim (which so often happens in sexual assault cases), Trump attempted to label the woman onstage with him as a rape apologist — and, by extension, as an example of rape culture in action. It marked the moment I needed to pause the debate, leave the room, and take a breather.
Trump’s false remarks about Clinton show that — regardless of the circumstances — a woman will be blamed when a man commits sexual assault, whether she’s the victim or the attorney who reluctantly must take the case to keep her job.
Trump’s words weren’t the only thing that left me seething with fury. The town hall format of the debate allowed him to pace the stage, and he took the opportunity to repeatedly invade Clinton’s space as she attempted to shift the discussion to policy.
To me, Trump’s constant hovering over Clinton appeared predatory and threatening — and his bizarre body language certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the Internet.
As body language analyst Ruth Sherman told The New York Times, Trump’s body language appeared to be an attempt to assert dominance:
Sunday night wasn’t the first time Trump’s candidacy took an emotional toll on me — and I know I’m not alone. The manner in which he has spoken about and treated women throughout his life and throughout this election cycle is triggering enough on its own — and that’s why I didn’t find any of the tapes’ content to be remotely shocking.
Really, the tapes are the culmination of a campaign with an entire platform that hinges on hatred and disrespect (and this certainly extends far beyond his attitude towards women). The #TrumpTapes may be breaking news this week, but we’ve known for a long time that Trump views women as nothing more than objects meant to satisfy the male gaze. The fact that he boasts about sexual assault is neither a shock nor a revelation — it simply lays out the truth in black and white.
Still, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the support survivors have offered one another over the past months and days.
Calls, text messages, emails, and hugs were a lifeline. We provided reassurance to one another that our emotions are valid — we have a right to be furious, distressed, and heartbroken that Trump is a major party candidate.
I hope that all survivors who feel triggered by this election can be kind to themselves and honor their emotions. I hope they will reach out for help if they need it, and know that they’re not alone. This is a dark time for many Americans. Everyone who has experienced emotional setbacks due to Trump’s candidacy should know that there is no shame in shedding a few tears right now.