'Only appropriate response ... is outrage': Sexual assault professionals in Berkshire County respond to Trump comments

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PITTSFIELD — After Donald Trump's comments about groping and kissing women surfaced last weekend, the Elizabeth Freeman Center posted a Facebook message embracing those women who were moved to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault.

In the two days since they posted the message, multiple survivors have reached out to the center to share their experiences.

"Personally, I wish he could be thrown in jail for bragging about sexually assaulting women," said Sue Birns, a board member for the center and professor of sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. "The only appropriate response to it is outrage."

In the recording obtained by the Washington Post, which was captured by a hot microphone, Trump discussed kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women. Trump apologized for the statements, which he said amounted to "locker room talk."

And during Sunday's presidential debate, he denied kissing women and groping them without their consent. But in the days that followed, several women — including two highlighted in a New York Times story — have come forward accusing Trump of sexually assaulting them.

Trump has vehemently denied the allegations and his attorneys have demanded a retraction of the story and threatened to sue the Times.

Trump's words trivialize the experience of sexual assault survivors and can trigger them to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms such as flashbacks to the assault and panic attacks, Birns said.

"It's just crushing that people can make jokes about something that's a huge source of trauma," she said. "I don't know how many women in Berkshire County are reliving their rapes because this man is an imbecile."

Last year, the Freeman Center provided services to 288 survivors of sexual violence.

Trump's words are a kind of assault in themselves, as they violate women's sense of safety, she said. Verbal assaults like Trump's are part of a whole spectrum of violence against women, she said.

"[His words] perpetuate rape culture. There's no way it's just 'locker room talk," she said. "The implications are ... that he can get away with this because he's powerful."

The type of assault Trump primarily described — kissing or groping without consent — sometimes falls outside what she described as a narrow perception of sexual assault.

"Rape itself isn't taken seriously," she said. "So sexual assaults that aren't rape are taken even less seriously."

Survivors often come forward when a high-profile example of sexual assault is brought to a level of public awareness, said Becca Bradburd, director of operations and communications at the center.

Trump's comments reveal a larger "predatory mindset" that is part of society as a whole, but is starting to become less and less accepted, she said.

Society is approaching a new mindset where words like Trump's are not tolerated, she said.

"I think we're at a tipping point culturally," she said. "This kind of [attitude] is being less and less accepted in public discourse."

A man of Trump's influence saying the words on that recording is "regressive progress," said Julianna Kostas, co-president of Williams College's chapter of Circle of Women, a national organization.

"Trump's comments are never acceptable, and they bring issues of rape culture and consent to the national stage," said Aly Crain and Audrey Thomas, co-chairwomen of the Rape and Sexual Assault Network at Williams College, in an email. "It is disheartening to see a presidential candidate use language that is not just disrespectful toward women but also crosses a line into sexual misconduct."

Part of changing the culture surrounding sexual assault involves working to eliminate the idea that the victim of an assault is to blame, not the perpetrator, she said.

"We won't get a change in the incidents, say, of sexual violence ... until we start to really change a culture, a rape culture that blames the victim rather than the perpetrator," she said.

This often means having uncomfortable conversations and talking to young people in your life about what consent means and what healthy relationships and sexuality look like, she said.

These actions would create a culture in Berkshire County that supports survivors and stands up against the kind of things that allow sexual violence to occur — including things like jokes that undermine women's humanity, victim-blaming, and excusing behavior with comments like "boys will be boys," Bradburd said.

"Acts of domestic and sexual violence are able to happen because they exist within a cultural framework that, in one way or another, condones them," she said.

The Freeman Center frequently sees survivors who were blamed in one way or another for their assaults, she said.

"No matter who you are, no matter what you wear, no matter where you go, you deserve to be safe from sexual violence of any kind," she said.


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