Despite Pussy Hats, Discussion Of Sexual Violence Is Largely Absent Around Trump

02/27/2017 09:19 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2017

Co-authored with Sarah Diefendorf

Let’s talk about sexual violence: always difficult, always uncomfortable, and never more important than now.

As with anything that makes a big splash, it took only one day for critiques of the Women’s March on Washington (and sister marches) to start rolling in. Many critiques within the movement brought much-needed discussion of how the Women’s March did or didn’t deal with intersectionality. But others asked “why march at all,” and equated the March to “an ineffective feel-good spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats,” rather than a serious statement about issues critically important to marchers’ lives. Indeed, the March’s external critiques suggest the pussy hats undermined serious protest.

In dismissing marchers’ seriousness or the pussy hats themselves, this external dialogue moves the discussion of sexual violence to the background in national discourse and coverage of the March. Social scientists frame the reasons why these conversations are missing in our national dialogue and the ramifications when we don’t discuss sexual violence.

Pussy hats embrace a long tradition of reclaiming terms used to wound and instead own them with pride. As a symbol of the March, the hats embolden and reframe knitting, a traditionally feminine pastime, as an act of resistance. The sea of hats, those “pussy grabs back” signs, and the vagina costumes were not just a reclaiming of womanhood or an “ask” for equality, but a grim response to sexual violence. Many of the women marching on January 21st care about a wide array of issues, but many are also victims of sexual abuse, assault and rape. Many marched because they have experienced, personally, what it means to have someone “grab them by the pussy.”

Grabbing any part of a woman without her consent for sexual arousal or gratification is a crime. Indeed, many states class the specific act of grabbing a woman by the “pussy” as felony sexual assault. Had someone taken the new president to trial for such an act and won, this president would be a registered sex offender. Given the pressure in this country to greatly increase limits on sex offenders, it might seem surprising more people aren’t talking about sexual violence.

Every year in the United States, more than 320,000 people (largely women) experience sexual assault, and one in six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. These numbers are widely considered to be underestimates because reporting rates for sexual assault and rape are estimated to be around 30 percent. If we consider “unwanted sexual contact” more broadly, the experience is likely to be nearly universal.

These experiences are made worse by existing inequalities within our society. For example, members of the LGBTQ community, particularly trans men and women, are more likely to be victims of sexual violence. Native American women are more than twice as likely to face sexual violence as women of any other race. Women of color are less likely to receive support in the aftermath of assault or rape due to structural racism embedded in every part of the response system to assault ― from police to hospitals to courts. Taken collectively, these statistics form part of what is widely referred to as “rape culture,” in which rape and sexual violence are normalized.

Sociologists CJ Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander describe rape culture as a culture in which rape is increasingly stigmatized – one in which rape is abhorred and also frequent. Another key component of rape culture comes in the form of “symbolic” sexual violence: jokes, lewd discussions and laughter about rape and assault. Further dismissal and outright blame of survivors of sexual violence, and blame of “other” men for sexual violence all make up rape culture. Whether in the form of “locker room talk” or nonconsensual sex acts, rape culture and symbolic sexual violence help form the identities of men today. Men can joke about sexual violence, thus displaying their power over women, and can simultaneously distance themselves from the “bad guys” who rape, thus displaying their power over other men.

Indeed, President Trump’s behaviors highlight this duality. In calling Mexicans rapists, President Trump is able to distance himself from the “bad guys” who rape—a distancing that all too often places the blame for rape and rape culture on poor men and men of color – when in fact the vast majority of perpetrators are white. By distancing himself from those “other people” who rape, President Trump constructs what Pascoe and Hollander call “rape as background” which then allows for symbolic sexual violence: “locker room talk” by boys who “will be boys” and “grab women by the pussy” can then be categorized and understood as “not rape.”

This isn’t just about President Trump; this is a broader social phenomenon and common way that well-intentioned men respond to sexual violence. For example, the #notallmen and #notalllockerrooms hashtags also distance certain men from being perceived as the “bad guy,” while simultaneously silencing the fears of women and this broader societal trend.

The fact that sexual violence is so ubiquitous is undeniably one of the reasons so many people ended up in the streets for the Women’s March, regardless of which cause their signs heralded. Protesters and activists tend to be born when events affect them personally, and not before. Even if he never “actually” grabbed someone inappropriately, the new President engages in acts of symbolic sexual violence, and in doing so discounts the experiences of survivors of sexual violence. In response, millions of people stood together on January 21st in the largest collective day of protest march in U.S. history. This was far from a feel-good spectacle – it was, at least in part, a steely and unflinching response to sexual violence.

Emily Kalah Gade is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on political violence, civil resistance and militancy.

Sarah Diefendorf is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on gender, sexuality, and evangelical communities.

We would like to thank Paige Sechrest, Hannah Walker, Megan Marinakis, and Mary Anne Braymer for their editorial contributions to this piece.

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