My Turn: Sexual assault and the White House – silence or support?

For the Monitor
Published: 1/17/2017 11:29:58 PM

Though Donald Trump is far from silent on a wide range of topics, I suspect his White House is going to be silent on the issue of sexual assault. That’s disappointing, given that 1 in 5 women in New Hampshire has been raped in her lifetime. Sexual assault is clearly a crime that has wide impact.

Silence, or even silencing, which Trump has already shown to be his response to allegations of abuse, would be especially discouraging after we have seen long-needed attention to sexual assault in the media over the past several years. The Obama administration has been a strong force in directing that attention.

Early in 2014, the White House announced an initiative to prevent sexual assault, especially on college campuses. A public service announcement was released featuring male celebrities, Vice-President Biden and President Obama, calling on men to stand up against rape and abuse of women.

The response was encouraging. Major newspapers and networks began to cover the issue of sexual assault, beyond high-profile scandals, and provided a platform for women to tell their stories of being disregarded and discredited when they reported assaults on college campuses.

In 2015, stories of sexual assaults at elite prep schools exploded in the news, one of the most notable being a case at Concord’s own St. Paul’s School.

When the tape of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women and forcibly kissing them came out in October last year, news commentators called the behavior what it was – sexual assault.

Finally, America was having a national conversation about rape.

Then the backlash began. Trump’s taped remarks were minimized as nothing more than “locker room talk.” When a dozen women came forward to say Trump had done more than talk about groping them they were dismissed as liars looking for fame.

In response, the writer Kelly Oxford started a Twitter feed, asking women to share stories of their first sexual assault. The feed #NOTokay got more than 30 million views and tweets in five days. By the end of 2016, 9.7 million women had tweeted their stories: women who’d been groped and grabbed and flashed, women who were assaulted long ago or the day before, women who did or didn’t go to college, women who’d never told anyone about being molested, women who couldn’t remember their first sexual assault because they’d been abused their entire lives.

But all that was before the election. Now what?

The final months of 2016 gave us two more previews of how the incoming administration may handle the issue of sexual assault.

On Nov. 30, Kellyanne Conway spoke at an event in Washington, D.C., for high school students, sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. A 17-year-old asked Conway how she could rationalize working for a man who’d been accused of sexual assault and who seemed to admit to it on tape.

Conway paused. Was she thinking about this forum as an opportunity to educate youth, by far the population most at risk for sexual assault, about the importance of consent before touching another person intimately? Could she acknowledge how inappropriate unwanted sexual touch is (she called Trump’s language in the tape “disgusting” when it broke in October) without undermining Trump?

No, Conway’s response was to scold the young woman.

“Women are tired of the same argument and the same thing you are presenting to me right now. I’m glad that people looked at [those attacks] and said, ‘You know what? That’s an argument that will not create a single job in my community, not bring back a single of the 70,000 factories that have been closed, will not deter one member of ISIS from
doing their bloodletting here or anywhere else in the world.’ ”

An accusation isn’t an “argument” and the fact that some women voted for Trump (though more voted for Hillary Clinton by a 54 percent to 42 percent margin) doesn’t mean they’re tired of victims coming forward. Some women may have voted for Trump because jobs and terrorist attacks were more pressing concerns for them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about sexual assault and the harm it does to victims, families and communities.

In late December, Trump’s transition team sent a letter to the State Department asking for a list of “existing programs and activities to promote gender equity and ending gender-based violence.” Requests for clarification of the letter’s intent, including one in a statement from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, have gone unanswered.

Given Trump’s track record, it seems too much to hope that his administration is planning to support these programs.

We can hope that women who felt empowered to tell their stories of assault over the past three years were heard and helped to heal. We can publicly express our thanks to the outgoing administration for promoting the prevention of sexual assault, condemning rape and asking men to help stop it.

I don’t think we can expect anything close to that from the White House after Jan. 20. But silence from the White House doesn’t need to keep us quiet.

We can continue the national conversation on sexual assault without Donald Trump.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She blogs at

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