As long as 1 in 5 women in the United States falls victim to sexual assault in her lifetime, it’s hard to argue that there’s a place for “get on your knees” innuendo.
A significant amount of ink has been spilled over the last week discussing the size of Donald Trump’s…hands…and what the increasingly vulgar nature of our public discourse means for the race for the Presidency.
But we lose the plot if our response to Trump’s comments is limited to pearl-clutching well-I-nevers. The real danger in Trump’s comments about sex and women is actually in the way it reinforces, elevates, and strengthens the nation’s casual approach to sexual violence.
26,000 unreported sexual assults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2013
After former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney unleashed an attack on this year’s Republican frontrunner last week, Trump responded with a recollection of Romney’s plea for his endorsement back in 2012: “He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees. He was begging.”
The audience let out a chorus of laughs and middle-school “Oooohs,” and another Trump sound bite was born.
Powerful men insulting the powerless by suggesting they could force them to submit to sex—particularly oral sex—may be new to a race for the Presidency, but it’s common parlance elsewhere. Trump’s comments deserve indignation; at the same time, we must start to wrestle with the normalization of sexually violent language.
For a culture that is notoriously uncomfortable talking about sex, the ease with which we resort to sexually violent language as insult or metaphor should give us pause. Just what are we laughing at when we laugh at prison rape jokes? How seriously can we take rape when we use it to describe our favorite sports team losing?
The dark irony, of course, lies in the chasm between the ubiquity of rape and the trivialization of sexually violent language. We’ve managed to find a way to talk about sexual violence all the time without ever really having a conversation about it.
The language might be less of a concern if we uniformly took the violence itself seriously. But we’re culturally all over the place when it comes to even the definition of consent. As long as 1 in 5 women in the United States falls victim to sexual assault in her lifetime, it’s hard to argue that there’s a place for “get on your knees” innuendo.
No one’s arguing that raunchy jokes are the root cause of the nation’s pandemic of sexual violence. But language matters. The words we choose both reflect our understanding of the world and shape the understanding of those around us. A blasé attitude toward sexually violent language worsens a cultural problem that’s already pandemic.
Fortunately, we can choose a different path. Cultural norms are simply the collective expressions of behavior we deem appropriate or inappropriate. Each act of challenging these norms breaks them down. Not only can we choose to avoid using sexually violent language ourselves, but we can call it out when we hear it.
And if Trump’s past is any indication, we’ll have plenty more opportunities to do so before November.
Tahir Duckett is the Founder of ReThink, a DC-based non-profit that is working with adolescent boys to end rape. Find him on Twitter at @TahirDuckett.