What the Presidential Debates Reveal About Privilege and Sexual Assault

Marvin JS Ferrer

I’m with her.

The United States presidential debates are over and election day is fast approaching.  Unless there are longstanding structural polling biases in her favour, Hillary Clinton will most likely be the next President of the United States.

Thank goodness.

Many commentators have debated the effectiveness or relevance (or lack thereof) of presidential debates. Unfortunately, little has been said about what the US presidential campaign reveals about the prevalence of a culture that normalizes sexual assault by men on women.

trump-pointBetween the first and second debate, a ten-year old video surfaced featuring a 59-year old Donald Trump. In the video, Trump brags about how he takes advantage of his powerful status to sexually assault women with impunity.

“You can do anything,” Trump says to former Today Show host Billy Bush, describing his actions with crude vulgarity.

In the second debate, Trump dismissed his own words as “locker room talk.”  Although he claims he has never assaulted a woman, several women have come forward accusing him of doing what he bragged about in the video.

Sadly, Trump currently answers to no one but himself.

During the third debate, Trump doubled down, arguing that the stories have been “largely debunked.” His assertion is not only untrue, but also raises further questions about which parts of the stories he thinks have not been debunked.

Sadly, Trump currently answers to no one but himself. On November 8, however, he will answer to the American people. Although it looks like they are on track to reject him as president, an astounding 40 per cent of Americans agree that Trump’s comments were in fact “locker room talk,” as if this is typical of how men talk about women. This survey offers a striking example of a culture where sexual assault is normalized, either if 1) it is true that men talk about women that way, or 2) most men don’t talk about women that way, but many think it is normal that some do. This culture is not contained to America.

In Canada, provincial governments have moved to respond to and eliminate this culture. For example, the Ontario government launched “It’s Never Okay” in March 2015, a campaign aimed at encouraging people to intervene when they see sexual harassment or violence. The tagline of the campaign is, “if it’s not okay to say, it’s never okay to do.” Apparently many people believed otherwise. Before the campaign,  only 37 per cent of people felt an obligation to intervene after observing sexual harassment, compared to 58 per cent after. Ontario universities will also be required to have a sexual assault response and prevention policy. If Donald Trump was a university student, his own words and the accusations of women against him would probably have triggered similar policies.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of evidence regarding whether or not these types of campaigns are effective in reducing instances of sexual harassment or violence. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has identified only three programs proven to be effective in reducing sexual violence perpetration. All three programs involve a session-based curriculum, and are neither advertising nor awareness campaigns.

Polling after the debates have also revealed, with striking clarity, a culture that views unwanted sexual conduct as normal.

It was bad enough that Donald Trump admitted to perpetrating sexual assault. During two debates he was directly questioned about his statement. Survivors of sexual assault, like the victim of Stanford rapist Brock Turner, want their perpetrators to “get it, to understand and admit to […] wrongdoing,” sometimes in lieu of harsh punishment. By dismissing his admissions of assault as “locker room talk,” and then smearing his alleged victims’ looks and honesty, Donald Trump is falling far short. Polling after the debates have also revealed, with striking clarity, a culture that views unwanted sexual conduct as normal.


Hillary Clinton has spent decades fighting for the rights and well-being of Americans: those living in poverty, women and children, and even her constituents on Wall Street when she was the Senator of New York. No record as long or accomplished as hers could be perfect. Hopefully, however, her election will be one more blow in the ongoing fight against gender-based violence.

Marvin is a member of the Master of Public Policy Class of 2018 at the University of Toronto. He completed his undergraduate degree in Life Sciences and a master’s and doctoral degree in the cell biology of reproduction and fertility at Queen’s University. His policy interests include science and research policy, and health policy, and he would like to advance the use of the scientific method to improve evidence-based decision making. Marvin is now old enough to be a senator, and would appreciate it if someone mentioned this to the Prime Minister.

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