How Survivor Activists Changed the 2016 Presidential Election

Donald Trump is likely to lose the presidential election tomorrow, thanks in no small part to his lack of support from women. Campus and Cosby survivor activists laid the groundwork for his loss by giving the nation a share language for understanding Trump’s predatory behavior.

Sexual Predator Donald Trump

The 2016 election reached a turning point in early October after the Washington Post leaked an audio recording of Trump describing acts of sexual assault. Within a matter of weeks, thirteen women went public with allegations of sexual misconduct, and the public became aware of an already pending case involving a 13-year-old. Trump experienced a near fatal  poll plunge from #TrumpTapes from which he has not recovered (see chart below).


Powerful sexual predators are nothing new in politics, but what makes this election different is the press and the public holding Trump accountable. Reporters in mainstream media have been quick to label Trump asexual predator” in opinion pieces, and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly is in hot water with Trump supporters for using that term.

Sexual Predator Bill Clinton

Trump’s treatment stands in stark contrast to the treatment of Bill Clinton, another presidential candidate who faced multiple allegations of sexual violence when he ran in 1992 and 1996. An English woman named Eileen Wellstone filed a report with the State Department in 1969 alleging that Clinton raped her after they met at a pub near Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Campaign volunteer Juanita Broaddrick alleged that Bill Clinton raped her in a hotel room in 1978. He settled a civil case from Arkansas state employee Paula Jones who alleged that he exposed his private parts and propositioned her in a hotel room in Little Rock in 1991. Fundraising operative Sandra Allen James alleged that Clinton invited her to his hotel room during a campaign trip in 1991 where he pinned her against the wall and sexually battered her. Flight attendant Christy Zercher alleged that Bill Clinton grabbed one of her breasts on the campaign plane in 1992. Kathleen Willey alleged that Clinton was “very forceful” with unwanted sexual advances in the Oval Office in 1993.

If Bill Clinton were running today, mainstream media would likely label him a “sexual predator” and he would have a tough time garnering votes from women that were decisive in both of his victories. In 1992, 45% of women voted for Bill Clinton compared to 38% for George H. W. Bush. In 1996, he had a 17-point gender gap over Bob Dole (55% to 38%).

The New Political Landscape

So what has changed? Survivor activists in the Campus Anti-Rape Movement and the Bill Cosby case have revolutionized the way we think and talk about sexual violence in the U.S.

Simply put, people are now more informed about what constitutes sexual violence, and we have shared language to describe sexually predatory behavior. We better understand why many survivors don’t report sexual assault, and why it can take decades for some survivors  to come forward. We have learned about the role we play in silencing survivors by dismissing their allegations and buying into rape myths. We have witnessed the snowball effect when survivors are empowered to report after seeing other survivors go public.

This new awakening did not happen overnight, it did not happen for everyone, and our country still has a long way to go to truly reform our rape culture. But it is fair to say that survivor activists have made electoral politics a hostile environment for sexual predators.

Campus Activists

Anti-rape activism started on campuses over four decades ago. The first academic study, “Male Sex Aggression on a University Campus,” was published by sociologists Clifford Kirkpatrick and Eugene Kanin in 1957, but it would take another two decades for the crisis to receive public attention. In 1982, Ms. Magazine featured Mary Koss’ research in “Date Rape: A Campus Epidemic.” Her work made “date rape” part of the national dialogue, but it was met with a backlash over whether “date rape” constituted “real rape” from men’s rights organizations and Playboy. This “debate” effectively dampened public outrage and action around the issue.

In 2013, enabled by social media, survivor activists accomplished something that four decades of academic research and activism had not. They put rape on the national political agenda.  President Obama credited “an inspiring wave of student-led activism” for catapulting rape into public consciousness. Students like Wagatwe Wanjuki, Alexandra Brodsky, Kamilah Willingham, and Alexa Schwartz fought tirelessly to raise awareness through lawsuits, Title IX complaints, and social media campaigns. As shown in the chart below, survivor activists effectively shifted public attention starting in 2013.


Cosby Survivors

Cosby survivors have also played a pivotal role in shifting public consciousness about powerful men who are serial sexual predators. Allegations against Bill Cosby first surfaced a decade ago in 2005 when Andrea Constand filed a civil suit against the comedian. Her case included thirteen Jane Doe witnesses, including Tamara Green, a survivor who went public on the Today Show. But the country wasn’t ready to take these allegations seriously.

In February of 2014, with rape now a part of the national conversation, Newsweek reporter Katie Baker published the accounts of Barbara Bowman and Tamara Green. Later that year, comedian Hannibal Buress spoke of Cosby’s rape allegations in a video that went vital. Buress “joked” that “Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom. Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.”

Within a year, nearly 60 women came forward with allegations that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them. Model and businessperson Beverly Johnson talked about the pressure she faced in the industry to stay silent. Cosby Show guest star Lili Bernard faced the same pressure from industry insiders and others. The sheer number of women who came forward with allegations made the truth impossible to dismiss, and revealed the incredible power a celebrity has to silence  victims. It is easy to believe that Trump is a sexual predator because we have heard the same story with Cosby.

Back in 2006, when Trump was called a sexual predator on the Howard Stern Show laughed and mouthed the words “true, it’s true.” Today, Trump is not laughing.


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