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Troubles show stories are being heard


Donald Trump has never made any secret of his contempt for women. But at last people are starting to take it seriously

From Bowie to Brexit, it is generally agreed that 2016 has been a disaster of such epic proportions that the sooner we race to 31 December and start over, the better. But I’d like to propose a slighty different take: it is also the year that people finally started to listen to the voices of women who have suffered sexual assault. Instead of dismissing them as faceless sluts who somehow brought this on themselves, public and politicians alike are saying: “You know what? I’m going to draw my line right here.”

The ultimate example of this – the one looming just a little too close over your shoulder – is Donald Trump, whose campaign was finally derailed by his boasts about sexual assault. Trump has spent millions on his campaign, only to be exposed in a similar way to Jimmy Savile – in the sense that everything was always in plain sight, but few cared enough about the victims to complain. Until now. Since the leak of the tapes in which he shared his sexy assault tactics with his grinning chimp of a sidekick Billy Bush (just when you think you’ve plumbed the depths of the Bush family, there’s always one more moron in the cupboard), the stories that have been around are finally being heard: the women whose breasts he grabbed, whose dressing rooms he strode into.

Trump had been doing all of this for years; in many instances, he’s done it on air. Back in 2004, when he was 58, he said on the radio that he’d like to sleep with the then 18-year-old Lindsay Lohan, because “deeply, deeply troubled women are the best in bed”. Like Savile, Trump revelled in his brazenness: in 2006, when Howard Stern told Trump he was “a sexual predator”, he nodded with a laughwhile his daughter Ivanka – that self-described supporter of women – giggled and patted her father’s shoulder.

Like I say, none of this is new. In 1992, the Chicago Tribune reported that Trump told a pair of 14-year-old girls: “In a couple of years, I’ll be dating you.” Back then, that story was headlined Such A Comedian; this year, it is being retold as evidence of his unacceptable grossness. This is not about a gradual enlightening of attitudes; rather, a sharp corner has been turned.

The pivot was Bill Cosby. Last year, New York magazine published its now iconic cover, featuring portraits of 35 of the women who accused Cosby of assaulting them. It became impossible for people to keep ignoring them, as they had been for years (again, these were not new allegations). Whispered rumours of sexual assault are no longer seen as amusing or alpha male behaviour – boys will be boys! – even if Trump still seems to think they are. They are, finally, a bridge too far.

The public is catching up with this quicker than the law or the media. Earlier this year, American student Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman. Newspaper reports of the case invariably refer to Turner as the “Stanford swimmer”, which is either Latin for “rapist” (I didn’t go to Stanford, so what do I know?) or a suggestion that Turner’s education and hobbies are more important than his proclivity for sexual assault. After Turner was sentenced to just six months in prison, the victim’s impact statement sparked widespread fury; a petition for the judge’s removal has more than 1.3m signatures.

This is why last weekend’s front-page Sunday Times interview with Ched Evansfelt so retrograde. Whatever anyone thinks of the case, and the way the victim’s sexual history was used to humiliate her in court, the contrast between Evans’ demonstrably repulsive attitude towards women and the absurdly romantic depiction of his family life was like something out of the 80s. Nowhere in the interview was he asked whether he often creeps into hotel rooms to watch his friends having sex. Instead, there were photographs of Evans playing with his dogs like a modern-day St Francis, alongside the girlfriend who bankrolled his case, and their baby.

Anita Hill, who knows this subject too well, recently wrote an editorial in the Boston Globe. “Responses to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence must start with a belief that women matter as much as the powerful men they encounter,” she argued. The powerful man Hill encountered, and whom in 1991 she accused of sexual harassment, is still sitting on the Supreme Court. But 2016 is looking a little different. The man who has become emblematic of all the worst things about male privilege and sexual entitlement is on the verge of being beaten to the highest political office by a woman. Things aren’t perfect. But they’re getting better. Step by step, woman by woman.

By Handley Freeman