“There’s never been anyone more abusive to women in politics than Bill Clinton. My words were unfortunate- the Clintons’ actions were far worse.” — Donald Trump
Sexual violence has been front and center in the presidential campaign, after the recording of Donald Trump’s disgusting comments about women was released, and Trump’s attempt at deflection by bringing up Bill Clinton’s record of alleged sexual assault, as well as Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement in covering it up. But the crassly political nature of the discourse has failed to serve those who have survived sexual violence and those who live in perpetual risk of it.
Trump, Clinton, and their respective supporters have been framing the issue as a debate over whose actions are worse, and who is telling the truth. But to morally condemn individual acts of sexual assault while ignoring gendered inequality in general is to use survivors of assault as political pawns.
Survivors of sexual assault are paraded around at presidential debates while the material conditions facing women are left unmentioned. The vast majority of sexual violence is committed by boyfriends, husbands and partners, in many cases partners that victims can’t easily afford to leave. There are policies that can help address the economic insecurity that feeds abuse: universal childcare, well-funded domestic violence shelters, access to affordable health care, living wages, and guaranteed public housing.
If Trump actually cared about the issue of sexual violence, and not just about scoring political points, he might have pointed out, rightly, that the Clintons’ welfare reform bill threw millions of low-income women into exactly the kind of desperate poverty that makes women most vulnerable to sexual violence, especially from partners who they can’t afford to leave. And Hillary Clinton’s campaign could have connected Trump’s established pattern of misogynistic behavior with his poor treatment of workers, including the service workers in his many businesses, who are overwhelmingly non-unionized women. For these workers, sexual harassment may as well be part of the job description. But neither side has seriously addressed the broader context of gender inequality that makes women, especially poor women, vulnerable to sexual violence.
The punditocracy is no better. Rather than a serious, endemic social problem that requires sustained attention and large-scale, well-funded solutions, rape isbut a “scandal” with consequences for Election Day. The ongoing needs for survivors are not part of the discussion.
This is true at every level in our society. For example, I’m a student organizer at a college that has strong workshops on consent and active bystanderism during orientation week. However, it’s still an American college, and roughly 1/5 of women experience assault while there. The school has repeatedly said that they are proud to have such high assault statistics, as it means that students are comfortable coming forward. But that doesn’t change the fact there’s little support available to survivors after they’ve reported their assault. There’s no staff member on campus who can diagnose mental illness or prescribe treatment for PTSD, and students who, possibly in response to the trauma of being assaulted, talk openly about harming themselves, are forced to leave campus on medical leave.
In the broader political realm as well, the spectacle-focused, moral-panic type discourse that surrounds intermittent high-profile cases of sexual assault rarely addresses the actual needs of women. In fact, it can be, and often is, twisted to support virtually any political agenda, feminist, or not.
During the Jim Crow era, for example, preventing the rape of white women was often presented as a key purpose of segregation. From anti-miscegenation laws to Emmett Till, the supposed prevention of rape was used to justify racist atrocities across America. But given that marital rape was essentially legal in all 50 states until 1993, it’s clear that these laws were in place for the sake of bigotry, not feminism.
The same thing is happening today, where a groundbreaking equal rights amendment in Houston, protecting against housing and job discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, age, and many other classes, was struck down on the basis of “protecting women and girls from sexual predators.”
Of course, trans and gender-nonconforming people are vastly more likely to be victims of sexual assault — 64% experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes — than perpetrators. Real gender equality will mean justice for both women and gender minorities. Yet equal rights laws that have the potential to curtail rampant sexual assault are blocked politically because of bigotry under the guise of protecting women from rape.
Rape happens far too often, and it’s horrible. But we’ve gotten to a point where excoriating prominent perpetrators of sexual violence is seen as a top feminist priority, with no focus on the material conditions of the women, and trans people, who experience it. Expressing a desire to prevent sexual assault is a fairly non-controversial position to take: “opposing” rape and harassment is easy, using a third party’s trauma to delegitimize your opponent is easy. The hard, but central part of the feminist agenda is the fight for gender equality in our entire economy and society. That means first providing all women with basic necessities, like labor protections, living wages and access to affordable healthcare, childcare, and housing.
Sandy Barnard is a student at Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. They are a leader of Grinnell College Student Action and organize around issues of healthcare, especially mental healthcare, for students and low-income people in rural areas.