Whether intentionally or not, the rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump's campaign now contains one of many popular excuses used to dismiss rape allegations and denigrate the victim. It's not news that during their divorce, ex-wife Ivana Trump alleged that Trump, the GOP front-runner, raped her. Though she has softened her stance since the mid-'90s, the incident retold in a decades-old Trump biography is extremely alarming. And in the aftermath, Ivana has since claimed that her earlier story is without merit.
When The Daily Beast approached Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen for a statement on the story, Cohen flew off the handle. In addition to threatening the publication, he adamantly claimed the entire account never happened. "You're talking about the front-runner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as private individual who never raped anybody," Cohen said. "And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can't rape your spouse. It is true. You cannot rape your spouse. And there's very clear case law.”
Cohen was (obviously) wrong: Marital rape does exist. New York state declared it illegal in 1984, and it's been banned in all 50 states since the early '90s. Cohen belatedly realized this and apologized for his statements Tuesday. "In my moment of shock and anger, I made an inarticulate comment — which I do not believe — and which I apologize for entirely," Cohen told CBS News.
It's a little telling that Cohen didn't explicitly address what part of his outburst he was apologizing for — his statement that marital rape doesn't exist, or his promises to destroy The Daily Beast reporters. And furthermore, why did he so adamantly deny it was real? Cohen's comments sounded like a product of one of many myths and excuses that our society continuously offers up as a means of dismissing and devaluing rape allegations.
The Marital Rape "Myth"
During the 1980s, when the country was in the process of officially making marital rape illegal, many still denied its existence. Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton said during a 1981 hearing, "Damn it, when you get married, you kind of expect you're going to get a little sex." And even more recently in 2008, conservative Phyllis Schlafly said that marriage is a consent for sex. "When it gets down to calling it rape though, it isn't rape, it's a he said-she said where it’s just too easy to lie about it," Schlafly said while speaking at a college. "Feminists, if they get tired of a husband or if they want to fight over child custody, they can make an accusation of marital rape, and they want that to be there, available to them.”
Even if we don't believe the excuses we're throwing out there, they still indicate a deeper level of thinking. For example, acknowledging that a man can, in fact, rape his wife means recognizing that women do not sign over their bodies and sexual will to a husband at the wedding altar. As evidenced by those, like Schlafly and Denton, who don't believe marital rape exists, when their views about the nature of sex in marriage is challenged, they become defensive.
Blaming The Victim
We offer up similar excuses every day, not because we don't want to acknowledge rape exists, but because by doing so, we will be forced to expand our perceptions of society, gender roles, and sexuality. We point out a victim's long history of sexual encounters because society is still uncomfortable with the thought of overtly sexual females. We cite her clothing choices as evidence that she was "asking for it" because it's uncomfortable to have two narratives for women: one who is sexually and physically confident yet uninterested in all male advances.
Ignoring Male Victims
One of the most disturbing excuses used those denying rape allegations is that rape cannot happen to men. Despite the fact that they are almost never talked about, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that 3 percent of men have been raped in their lifetime. Yet half the country feels that their assaults are "impossible." This perpetuates several flawed methods of thinking. It's contingent on a narrow and limited definition of assault, in which many assume that in order to be sexually assaulted or raped there must be vaginal penetration. And it insinuates that in order for a man to become erect and engage in vaginal penetration, he must be aroused and therefore "willing" to have sex. But the fact is that assault and rape comes in many shapes and sizes and is not narrowly limited to vaginal penetration.
Men are preyed on by both other men as well as women. A man does not have to be erect in order to be assaulted. And if he is erect, it's not a sign of consent. As teenage boys across the nation can attest, men cannot always control when they have erections. And there are drugs out there that facilitate the process, without requiring emotional and consensual arousal. By acknowledging that men can in fact be raped, it's forcing society to re-evaluate their deeply engrained ideas of masculinity and male sexuality.
We are so uncomfortable with addressing our inner misconceptions, that we just choose not to. We dismiss the possibility of rape, or blame the victim, or fall back on long-outdated stereotypes. It's an uncomfortable national conversation that is coming to a head, and, whether they wanted to or not, Trump and other politicians have been dragged into.