Why the Trump tape started a national conversation about sexual assault

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Almost a week after its release, the leaked tape of Donald Trump boasting of sexually harassing and assaulting women continues to raise issues that go well beyond presidential politics.

John Yang has that story.

BILLY BUSH, “Access Hollywood”: Yes. The Donald has scored! Whoa, my man!

JOHN YANG: The impact of this 2005 tape of Donald Trump and NBC personality Billy Bush has gone far beyond politics. It’s sparked a national discussion over misogyny and sexual assault.

READ MORE: Two women say Trump touched them inappropriately, New York Times reports

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Candidate: I better use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And, when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.

DONALD TRUMP: Grab them by the (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

(LAUGHTER)

DONALD TRUMP: I can do anything.

JOHN YANG: While Trump apologized for the remarks during Sunday night’s debate, he also tried to dismiss them.

DONALD TRUMP: Certainly, I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.

JOHN YANG: He also raised decades-old accusations against his opponent’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.

DONALD TRUMP: Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he’s done to women.

JOHN YANG: Hours before, the Republican nominee appeared with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. None of those accusations, it should be said, have ever resulted in any criminal charges.

This all comes amid a heightened sensitivity about sexual assault and violence. There’s the pending trial of comedian Bill Cosby on sexual assault charges in Pennsylvania and other similar allegations against him. And there was the furor over the six-month jail sentence handed earlier this year to Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

Some Trump supporters have suggested that the reaction to the Trump tape is overblown.

SCOTT BAIO, Actor: And ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So, if you’re offended by it, grow up.

JOHN YANG: But the tape prompted an avalanche of reaction on social media.

Author Kelly Oxford shared her own sexual assault experience, and encouraged others to do the same. Her callout swiftly went viral. More than 30 million people have either left a response or visited her Twitter page since Friday night, a nationwide catharsis of painful experiences.

And now for more on this, Kelly Oxford joins us now from Burbank, California, along with Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings. Hill is now a law professor at Brandeis University. And here in the studio, Mike Wise, senior writer for ESPN’s “The Undefeated.”

Kelly, let me start with you.

As I look through your Twitter feed, you have now got the hashtag #NotOkay for people telling their stories. It really is quite amazing to see the volume and kinds of experiences people are talking about. What has struck you about this response?

KELLY OXFORD, Author, “Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar”: You know, people have desperate need to discuss this topic.

And I created the hashtag #NotOkay because I knew the volume of people coming in would be extremely large. So, I’m not shocked by how many people are coming forward. I think a lot of women discuss this with each other. A lot of women have sexual assault and rape in their families, their grandmothers, their mothers, their aunts, their sisters.

And the Internet is a place where everybody has a voice and everybody can contribute. And it’s happening. And it’s happening right now. It’s been five days and women are continuing to send me stories.

JOHN YANG: What do you think this says about our culture, that there is so much response to this?

KELLY OXFORD: It says that women are being abused. It’s such an overwhelmingly huge problem that we ignore it, as we often do when things are this large.

JOHN YANG: Professor Hill, it’s been 25 years now since you gave your testimony in the Russell Caucus Room up on Capitol Hill in the Senate.

When you listen to Kelly talk about the response she’s gotten, what strikes you? What’s your response? What are you thinking?

ANITA HILL, Brandeis University: Well, the first thing I thought was that, 25 years ago, people actually said that they had no idea that sexual harassment was a problem.

And I’m also — but I’m struck that Ms. Oxford says that she understands and knows about this problem, you know, of sexual assault, because when the wave of students started protesting the problem on college campuses, people, detractors accused them of inflating the numbers of assaults that women experience.

And I think the great service of this hashtag is to get these stories out, so that we can debunk this idea that this is an infrequent problem, and that it’s not, in fact, quite severe and quite pervasive.

JOHN YANG: And, Professor, you say, 25 years ago, people — it really did spark some of the first discussions about sexual harassment in the workplace and in other places.

The kind of response that Ms. Oxford is getting, how does that compare to the kind of response you were getting?

ANITA HILL: Well, we didn’t have social media 25 years ago.

And so most of what I got were letters. I got a lot of letters, and I still get them. And the problems and the behaviors range from verbal sexual harassment to physical assaults, whether it’s in the workplace or on the streets or in schools. So this is really a social problem. It can appear in any arena.

I think the response also is different in terms of people saying, be much more skeptical. I think people may not know the extent of sexual assault, but I think, after this discussion is over, I hope that at least people will not deny that it happens at all.

And I also hope that, when we start talking about these issues, that we can start from a premise that women are valued as much as the men who accost and assault them. And that has not always been the premise.

JOHN YANG: Mike, it’s being dismissed — or Donald Trump and his supporters are just saying this is locker room talk.

MIKE WISE, ESPN: Yes.

JOHN YANG: You’re a sportswriter. You have been in locker rooms, a lot of locker rooms, over the years.

MIKE WISE: Yes.

JOHN YANG: Is this locker room talk?

MIKE WISE: Well, none of the ball players I know, maybe other than Bill Bradley, were actually running for office. So, we might expect more of our leaders.

But I think locker room talk is an awful excuse in some ways. Saying it’s just locker room talk are like the people that commit crimes and say, he’s only human. Well, that means you have a larger neural cortex than most animals that operate on instincts.

And so I think we need to get out of this locker room talk culture. I don’t think it’s as pervasive as it used to be. But, still, I have heard some of the filth, misogyny, racism, crude jokes that went beyond dirty. And so I think, until we address that problem, that it’s just locker room talk, well, no, it’s where you worship arrested development. You’re still a boy. Let’s all get into the 21st century and become men.

JOHN YANG: Kelly Oxford, what about that? Is there a danger in dismissing it as locker room talk, as saying that there are places where this is acceptable?

KELLY OXFORD: Yes.

No, it’s not acceptable anywhere. Women have only had the vote for less than 100 years. Before that, we were wives and essentially kind of property. We grew up, and our parents wanted us to get married, so somebody else could look after us.

And in the last few decades, it’s changed. We can now have families without men. But, unfortunately, the dialogue, the old boys club, the locker room talk, has mysteriously not changed at all.

JOHN YANG: Professor Hill, what’s your take on that?

ANITA HILL: Well, and I would just say — well, I would just say to this idea that it’s just locker room talk, I think that’s just another one of those lame excuses that are given.

In other words, you could say, oh, it was just a joke, or, you know, can’t you take a joke, or it really wasn’t that hard, it wasn’t all that bad. And it’s just a way of diminishing the value of women and excusing illegal behavior.

And so I don’t know that anyone actually takes that seriously, but I do hear over and over people saying, well, it was just this or it’s just that, as though it’s the woman’s fault for complaining about being sexually assaulted.

And so I think, again, what we have to go back and think about is, from whose perspective are we going to move forward on this? Are we going to continue to use language like this to protect abusers? Are we going to continue to give them slaps on the wrist, when we know that they have committed these acts?

Or are we actually going to value women in the way we say we do and punish people when they participate in what is severe and pervasive and an extensive problem?

MIKE WISE: Professor Hill hits it right on the head, John, that if we don’t get into a culture of examining how this is wrong, when you go to a debate a few days later, and you show up on the stage and your first response is, it’s just words, I think that’s very dangerous.

And I think, while there are a lot of people out — I don’t — I would never mitigate anybody who commits sexual assault, but I would say that those people will be found out eventually. In some ways, I’m really more worried about the enabling culture we have that it’s so permissive to say these things and to say, oh, we’re too politically correct today.

And until we get into a mind-set of, no, that’s wrong and the friends around you that are supposed to tell you what you need to hear, other than what you want to hear, tell you it’s wrong, we’re going to still have this kind of culture.

ANITA HILL: This is a pivotal moment, though.

And the question is, how much farther along are we going to move? Many women are harassed, one in three between the ages of 18 and 34, by one poll. And we need to figure out if, in fact, we are going to enable them to come forward with their complaints, as opposed to enabling harassers and abusers to continue their behavior.

JOHN YANG: Where do you want to see this discussion go, Professor Hill? You say it’s a pivotal point. It started a discussion. Where should it go from here?

ANITA HILL: Well, it should go really in spelling out of, what is it like to experience these problems?

And that’s why Ms. Oxford’s Twitter feed is so important, because it’s getting it out there. It’s getting the stories out. And that was really important 25 years ago. But it has also then become embedded in our policies and procedures in workplaces.

Most women who are harassed don’t come forward, they don’t complain because they’re skeptical of the process, or they don’t think anything is going to come of it if they are found to have been harassed. And so — and we know from some very public cases that sexual assault isn’t always punished even by the courts in the way that they should be.

So, we have got to figure out, how are we going to embed women’s experiences in the processes, so that they trust the processes, that there are fair investigations that get to the truth, and then there is appropriate punishment when abuse occurs?

MIKE WISE: One of the things — and I show — I want to show gratitude to both women, Professor Hill and Kelly, that 25 years ago, Professor Hill didn’t have the same support system that we do through social media and whatnot.

And she — it almost became like a pick a side. You’re either on a prospective justice’s side or you’re either on Ms. Hill’s side. And it was ridiculous in some ways.

One of the disturbing things about today is, people like Kelly, they put themselves out there. And a lot of times, they will get revictimized through some nasty tweets, somebody being snarky or somebody just being vile and foul.

I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage today, even though the support system is bigger.

JOHN YANG: Mike Wise…

KELLY OXFORD: I actually…

JOHN YANG: I’m sorry. Go ahead.

KELLY OXFORD: I actually — I actually think, you know, if social media and the Internet had been around when Ms. Hill went through what she went through, I think she would have had a lot of support.

I think that the fact that she even got handwritten letters and still gets letters today is proof of that. It would have been so easy for her to get a message from a woman. It takes two second online to show your support.

And, honestly, the amount of backlash that I have received for this has been minimal. It has been almost all support, almost all women and some men telling their stories of how rampant this abuse is in our society.

ANITA HILL: I would also say that I did get lots of support. I did hear from women almost immediately.

And it was hard to get in touch with me. I still have letters from Western Union, which I don’t even know if Western Union is in the business of sending messages anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

ANITA HILL: But I have faxes. People made an effort.

But I still know that it takes a lot of courage to come forward and tell your story, because you really don’t know what the response is going to be.

JOHN YANG: Anita Hill, Kelly Oxford, Mike Wise, I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there. We could talk about this much longer, but thank you all very much for joining us.

MIKE WISE: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Web site, columnist Wendy Thomas Russell tries to answer what many parents have been thinking: How do I explain this embattled and sometimes R-rated election to children?

Go to PBS.org/NewsHour to find her advice.

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