Donald Trump and America's reckoning on sexual violence

Donald Trump is denying allegations of sexual assault and calls them a “coordinated and vicious attack” from the media and Hillary Clinton campaign. He made the remarks during a rally in the battleground state of Florida. (Oct. 13)

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has unwittingly forced a reckoning on sexual violence in America.

Four new women came forward in stories published Wednesday with allegations of sexual assault against the Republican presidential nominee. The public’s reaction has been fiercely split. Some insist it is easy to believe that a man who boasts he gropes women routinely would, in fact, do just that. Others find the timing of the allegations suspect and question the accusers’ motives.

How the public treats these women — many with documented cases — speaks volumes about how we view sexual assault in the U.S. and the toxic stigma many victims of sexual violence repeatedly face.

William J. Fitzpatrick, district attorney in Syracuse, N.Y., and chairman of the board of the National District Attorney’s Association, said the public’s reflex is to distrust the victim, rather than the accused.

“My office believes someone when they say they were sexually assaulted,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s not true in the court of public opinion.”

The allegations against Trump surfaced days after the release of a 2005 recording in which the Republican nominee is heard making sexually predatory comments toward women, disturbing not only in their vulgarity but also in their suggestion that wealth, power and privilege granted him impunity.

Trump defended the lewd banter as “locker room talk.” The women who have come forward say these are not just words. They detail lecherous behavior that includes touching, groping and kissing without their consent.

Trump says the stories have no veracity. He called his female accusers “horrible, horrible liars.”

“I’m skeptical about the timing of all of this dropping,” Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough said in a panel discussion Thursday. Fox News host Howard Kurtz raised the same point. #NextFakeTrumpVictim was a trending hashtag on Twitter Thursday morning.

The public’s skepticism of the women accusing Trump of sexual assault, experts say, reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of their experience: Most women don’t report sexual assault, and many women never speak of it.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, fewer than 4 in 10 sexual assault victims file a police report. RAINN President Scott Berkowitz said 44% of the victims who contact RAINN’s sexual abuse hotline are speaking about their abuse for the first time.

There is a very specific stigma around sex crimes. When a person says, for example, they were mugged walking down the street, our instinct is to believe them. When a woman says she was sexually assaulted, we are suspicious.

We question her motives, we scrutinize her character, and, in many cases, we ferry culpability insidiously from perpetrator to victim. This despite the statistics showing that only about 2% to 10% of rape accusations are unfounded, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

This is the embodiment of rape culture, the behaviors in our society that normalize and minimize sexual violence.

Berkowitz says that for many women who have stayed silent about their sexual assaults, seeing other women speak out helps give them the courage to do the same.

“I think one thing we see often when there’s an allegation against a high-profile person, often less high-profile than Trump, is that other victims start coming forward,” Berkowitz said. “That’s in part because they feel solidarity with the other victims, but it’s also because there is safety in numbers.”

The first lady delivered an impassioned speech during a Clinton rally in New Hampshire, saying Trump’s controversial comments about women should be taken seriously.

It was hard for people to believe that “America’s Dad” was accused of being a sexual predator. For years women had made allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, but the public turned away until the numbers were too big to ignore. At least 60 women have now publicly claimed Cosby drugged and/or sexually assaulted them. He is expected to go to trial on sexual assault charges in June 2017.

It was hard for people to believe that the Catholic Church was covering up a decades-long child molestation scandal. Reports of abuse were ignored. A critical investigation by The Boston Globe in 2002 jolted America awake. In the United States alone, more than 17,000 victims have reported sexual abuse, going back as far as 1950 and involving about 6,400 priests in 100 cities.

Several of the women who have come forward with allegations against Trump say the 2005 recording served as affirmation.

Natasha Stoynoff, a former People magazine writer who was on the Trump beat when she said he forcibly kissed her during a 2005 interview, wrote that she felt relieved when she heard the recording. She said she felt she wasn’t to blame. Rachel Crooks, who worked as a receptionist at a real estate firm in Trump Tower in Manhattan, told The Times Trump kissed her “directly on the mouth” in 2005 without her consent. She said she felt comforted reading an account from former Miss USA contestant Temple Taggart in May that closely mirrored her own. It made Crooks feel she was not alone.

When Trump said his comments about women were locker room talk, it put the culture of locker rooms on display. Athletes fought back and said this was not who they are.

As women come forward and allege Trump has committed these acts, it puts the culture of sexual violence on display. Let’s hope Americans fight back. This is not who we are.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit and receive confidential support.

Dastagir is a mobile editor for USA TODAY who writes about media and culture. Follow her on Twitter @alia_e.

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