A critical mass of us are no longer willing to stay silent.
It was a calmer third debate. For the first 40 minutes you could almost pretend it was some other election year—a Democrat promising to uphold Roe v. Wade, a Republican pledging support for the second amendment. The candidates explained their positions on foreign policy and immigration, both leaning heavily on talking points and sound bytes we’ve seen in months of political ads.
The podiums on the debate stage separated the candidates physically, and the format didn’t allow Donald Trump to stalk around Hillary Clinton as he did in the second debate—moving behind her, standing over her, inching closer as she spoke.
But when the topic turned to sexual abuse, Trump’s restraint disappeared. He denied allegations, many of which have been corroborated by multiple sources, and referred to his presidential opponent as “such a nasty woman.”
Images of the physical intimidation Trump used in the October 9th debate stuck with me. (That’s me as a citizen, not a representative of any organization.) In my mind I replayed Clinton discussing the “Access Hollywood” tape as Trump moved closer and stood over her. I flashed back to Clinton approaching an audience member to answer his question about the Affordable Care Act while Trump moved directly behind her and got closer and closer as she talked. “Saturday Night Live” had their fun with this dynamic—Alec Baldwin’s Trump ran up behind Kate McKinnon’s Clinton as horror movie music played—but I found it hard to laugh.
In the days since the release of damning evidence of Trump bragging about sexual assault, at least nine women have come forward to report abuses allegedly committed by Trump. People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff had six people corroborate her experience, including a male mentor who advised her not to report Trump because it would ruin her career. Even worse, a Trump surrogate responded to these reports by characterizing the women as not attractive enough to warrant Trump’s attention. I’ve been disgusted thinking about how many acts of sexual violence powerful men like Trump have committed and how little accountability they have faced.
Watching these two candidates debate, my mind went to a place I never thought it would in a political contest: I pictured Donald Trump physically attacking Hillary Clinton (or me, or women in general) and I imagined myself (or Clinton or women in general) physically resisting.
Imagining physical resistance is nothing new for me. It’s what I do when I watch rape scenes in movies. It’s how I keep myself calm when interacting with people who have been abusive or people who are trying to bully me. I’ve been teaching empowerment self-defense for more than 12 years so the image of myself or another woman interrupting violence is a regular part of my life.
As I watched the debate I rehearsed a series of physical techniques in my mind—techniques I’ve taught hundreds of women and girls, many of them survivors of the types of assaults Trump is now denying. Yell “no.” Yelling helps you keep breathing. Find a strong part of your body and strike a vulnerable part of his. It doesn’t matter if he’s physically bigger than you, you still have options.
I feel my own vulnerability every time Trump addresses sexual assault. I feel it just as acutely when he claims to respect women as I do when he berates Clinton.
But the most important thing is that as soon as I felt my vulnerability I envisioned my strength. I didn’t feel stuck. I didn’t freeze. Instead I pictured my body mobilized to resist an act of abuse. I knew logically that, podiums or not, Donald Trump would not physically assault anyone on a debate stage, but I also know that the threat of rape shapes many women’s lives even in the absence of an actual rape. And in response to that fear I trusted my own body. In watching this election unfold, the deepest, most visceral part of me understands two things: that I don’t feel safe and I don’t need anyone else to protect me.
My experience is consistent with decades of research demonstrating the effectiveness of empowerment self-defense. Women who learn self-defense and rape resistance in classroom environments that support survivors and acknowledge the social and political realities of sexual assault are half as likely (or less than half as likely) to experience sexual violence. Research also shows that women who take empowerment self-defense are more confident about their bodies and more comfortable in social situations.
If there’s any hope to be found in this election year, it’s in the way Trump’s candidacy has forced us to reckon with sexual abuse. We have evidence of how much has changed in the last 10 years—colleagues who were convinced Stroynoff would never be believed in 2005 are publicly supporting her now. It’s the #notokay hashtag, in which women tweeted experiences of sexual violence at a rate of two per second, because a critical mass of us are no longer willing to stay silent. It’s knowing I can access a sense of power in the midst of feeling scared, which makes me feel less vulnerable to the brand of sexualized bullying men like Donald Trump perpetrate.
Meg Stone is the Director of IMPACT Boston, an abuse prevention and safety training program that is part of the nonprofit Triangle. Her writing has been published in Washington Post, Ms., Cognoscenti, Hippocampus, and is forthcoming in STIR Journal.