It really seemed like he had outdone himself this time. While Donald Trump’s sexism has long been obvious to just about everyone outside the GOP, the video unearthed by The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold of the Republican nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women was a bridge too far, even for Republicans. In what has become the most notorious segment, he used his fame to justify his behavior: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Whatever you want. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
None of this is out of character for Trump. This is the same man who fat- and slut-shamed former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, reportedly sexually harassed several women who worked on his show The Apprentice, and has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault. But this doesn’t mean that Trump is wrong per se. As vile as he may be, he is undeniably a product of American culture, and in this light his comments reflect a sad reality: Famous men can do whatever they want to women.
Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl only to later win an Academy Award to a standing ovation. It took only a mild statement of regret and the passage of time for Kobe Bryant’s reputation and endorsements to be restored after he was tried for rape. Then there’s Bill Cosby, whose history of sexual assault has only recently marred his status as America’s Favorite Dad—despite the fact that the accusations against him have been public for decades. Let’s not forget fashion photographer Terry Richardson who, despite facing multiple accusations of sexual assault, continues to work for Rolling Stone and Harper’s Bazaar.
The list goes on and on. Most of these men did face criticism at the time the respective allegations were made against them, but our collective memory only operates in the short term. If the public hasn’t forgiven, it has surely forgotten.
Even now, in the midst of this bizarre election cycle, a high-profile rape trial is underway. Knicks point guard Derrick Rose is involved in a civil suit for allegedly gang-raping his ex-girlfriend in 2013. According to the suit against Rose and his two friends, Randall Hampton and Randy Allen, the three men drugged the unnamed victim at a party and hours later raped her while she was unconscious in her apartment. The narrative of this case mirrors many others; it feels more like a smear campaign against the victim than an attempt at justice. In defending their client, Rose’s lawyers have focused on the victim’s alleged sexual promiscuity and insinuated she’s a gold digger.
The trial has been criminally underreported and not without reason. The main concern appears to be how all this will affect Rose’s play. When asked for his thoughts about the case and its potential effects on the team, Knicks President Phil Jackson assured the press that this would not be an issue to lose sleep over. “We’re going to let the process work itself out,” he said. “We’re not concerned. We understand it’s a serious subject we’re talking about. This has to be done outside our control. It’s something we can’t control. Derrick has expressed he’s not concerned about it. He’s aware of it, but it’s not keeping him up at night.”
Jackson’s careless language affirms Trump’s conclusion about the relationship between fame and sexual assault. It rests on an assumption that celebrity status bars a person from perpetuating and participating in rape culture. That sexual assault allegations are more an inconvenient obstacle to be overcome in a celebrity’s journey to greatness, rather than the gravest of accusations.
Many were quick to denounce Trump’s statements and correctly described it as an example of rape culture. Indeed, the infamous tape was the final straw for many in the Republican Party, leading to a mass defection that very well may end up sinking his presidential campaign. But condemning Trump is easy. Tweeting your outrage is easy. The more difficult exercise is to recognize that we live in a culture that finds fault in its victims before its attackers. That prefers to shame survivors and glorify the accused. That isn’t ready to admit that Trump is a reflection of who we are.