“This was locker room talk.” So began Donald Trump’s response, in the Second Presidential Debate, to being questioned about his sexual assault boasts in the now infamous Access Hollywood tape. Trump immediately moved to talking about what he called “more important things”: the danger of ISIS, and what he would do in response. “I will knock the hell out of ISIS,” Trump threatened, “I will take care of ISIS.” He closed his answer with predictable hyperbole: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
It’s tempting to think that Trump was just trying to distract from the issue of his recorded bragging about sexual assault. Yet in connecting these three assertions, Trump demonstrated that he is of, by and for rape culture. Rape culture, to paraphrase Susan Brownmiller’s classic formulation, consciously creates a society in which “all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Rape culture gives men license to say and do whatever they want with impunity, and creates a justice system that protects them if someone has the temerity to challenge their absolute freedom. Importantly, rape culture expects of men participation in the jokes, the threats, and the actions of “toughness” to “prove” that they are men. Finally, rape culture creates an Orwellian illusion of “love” and “respect” to protect its rapists.
We saw rape culture in sharp relief when former Stanford student Brock Turner was convicted of rape only because two men broke the culture’s code of silence — and when Turner was given a light sentence by a judge worried about “his future.” We saw rape culture when Donald Trump proclaimed that he would “pay the legal fees” for anyone who took the law into their own hands in attacking protestors at his rallies. And we saw rape culture broadcast to millions in Donald Trump’s answer to the charge of sexual assault.
First, “This was locker room talk.” An essential component of rape culture is an environment some men create — and too many other men tolerate – that casually discusses what are in fact crimes against women. While some men, like former NFL player Chris Kluwe, rightly reject Trump’s claim that all locker rooms are full of assault talk, men in rape culture know exactly what Trump means. In male-only spaces, some men inevitably feel the need to boast about what they did, or want to do, to women. These men — and their enablers — seek to normalize sexual assault, thereby seeking to hide it in plain sight.
Yet as women (and many men) are all too aware, locker room talk is not confined to the locker room, and it is most certainly not hidden. This assault talk creates a culture of fear, where women’s lives are at risk (not to mention their agency and their dignity) and men must make the decision whether to speak out and face sanction, or be enabling bystanders.
Second, “I will knock the hell out of ISIS.” This comment has been described as a “pivot” or a “distraction” or a “ramble.” It wasn’t. It was an essential part of his answer to the charge that he condones (and commits?) assault. Men within rape culture must constantly prove that they are tough. Seeking constant acceptance from the culture, these men seek to prove their physical power by destroying others. Robin Morgan made this point powerfully in The Demon Lover. And this “pivot” from normalizing male violence to legitimizing male aggression was seen throughout the Republican primaries. Candidates from Marco Rubio to Chris Christie to Donald Trump were practically foaming at the mouth as they competed to be the “toughest.” Trump’s nicknames for his opponents: “weak Jeb Bush” and “little Marco Rubio” are essential components of Trump’s rape culture framework.
Third, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” It’s clear that for Trump, as long as women are docile and stand loyally by his side, he has great respect for them. As long as women do absolutely nothing to challenge the rape culture framework, Trump promotes the lie that he respects them. And this lie is profoundly Orwellian, where down is up and up is down — an essential framework of rape culture. As we know from extensive social science research, women are much more likely to be assaulted by a male “friend” or family member than a stranger. Men like Donald Trump proffer this statement of respect as a way to gaslight women around them, and to create a climate of fear, intimidation and normalization of the most heinous acts of sexual violence.
I have no way of knowing whether Donald Trump is a rapist or has committed any acts of sexual assault. What I do know is that Donald Trump is peddling rape culture.
 Susan Brownmiller. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Ballantine Books.