Donald Trump and the semiotics of sexual objectification and harassment

In the immediate aftermath of the revelation of a tape showing Donald Trump expressing a demeaning, misogynistic and ultimately controlling view of women, many pundits noted that what he said was not “locker room talk,” stating that Trump’s disgusting ramble was far worse, and perhaps, too, that “locker room” talk was okay.

Let’s consider “locker room” talk as a gray area of male (and) female human behavior. Most of it tends to be aspirational—a discussion of things one would like to do or plan on doing. “Locker room” talk does involve a certain amount of objectification of women (of men when women do it), but it’s fairly harmless as long as it is not spoken to the individual being objectified and does not play out in sexist behaviors in which one person treats another as a mere object. And some talk is always off limits—as with racism, anything outwardly misogynistic belongs nowhere, not in the locker room, not in the tavern, not in man cave in front of a widescreen TV. For example, discussing the use of a rape drug.  That’s no longer “locker room talk.” It’s different and it’s disgusting.

And the overwhelming number of Americans—from radical feminists to conservative Christians who feel a woman’s place is in the home—knew immediately that what Trump said was and is different from jockish banter—and is completely disgusting.

It is nevertheless instructive to take a look at the various parts of what Trump said, beginning with context. We aren’t talking about a few buds downing suds in a bar at which single men and women gather. Trump was on the job.

Secondly, the audience was not Trump’s best bro, but a business acquaintance, a television and radio host, which means he is part of the media. This tape marks the first known instance of a public figure crudely discussing the unsolicited groping of female parts with the news media.

Now we come to the implications of what Trumpty-Dumpty actually said. It was despicable, a manifestation that he views women as objects he uses as he wants, for his sexual pleasure or to demonstrate his high status.

The comments reek with abuse and revel in the lack of consent they flaunt. Morality aside, if he had said he slept with a woman and she was married, it would have been okay from the legal standpoint because we assume consent. No one knows what goes on in a marriage—is it open?, was she an abused wife?—so most people will not pass judgment a priori on a man sleeping with a married woman, even while thinking the guy indiscrete to a fault to break the confidence and tell someone else. But what Trump said was that he kept pestering her, bothering her, cornering her. That’s always creepy, always wrong, and pretty much always illegal.

Same thing goes for his statements about groping the genitals of women without receiving prior permission to do so because he was a star. If he had said that stars get to sleep with a lot of women or a lot of women like to sleep with stars, some of us might be offended by the loose sexual mores involved, but again, there was nothing illegal because the women consented. It is the groping of a woman’s genitals without prior permission that revolts us and convinces us that Trump is a vile woman-hater.

Interestingly enough, the language is fairly mild, if revealing of Trump’s attitudes. Trump never uses the “c” word. Of course, “screwing,” “sleeping with,” “going to bed with,” “making love with” (or in Trump’s case “to”), “getting it on with”—there are numerous less offensive ways to express sexual union than “fuck.” But Trump is talking about something he—the all-powerful Donald—did to someone else—some good-looking bimbo—and what he did or wanted to do was simple brutal, one-way “fucking.” But in the casual listen without analysis, we hear “fuck” so much now in so many different contexts that it ceases to shock. After all how many people got fucked in Trump’s many bankruptcies?

And what about the guy, the mediocre Billy Bush? He seems to be going along with the flow of the conversation. Believe me, if someone said to me that stars get to grope women’s private parts, I would have said, “No they don’t, and why would they want to? A lot of women will willingly let a star touch them anywhere. All he has to do is ask nicely. So only a sick person would grope.” Bush lost his moral compass by not acknowledging what everyone instantly recognized: Trumpty-Dumpty went over the line.

The apology was unacceptable. The tone was grudging, almost defiant, which lent a hollow ring to the words. He said the statements he was caught making on tape were “not what I am,” but did not apologize for the many other misogynistic statements he has made about Megan Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Rosie O’Donnell, Alicia Machado, Hillary Clinton and other women in only the past few months. He also limited his apologies to the comments, and said nothing about the actions that the comments indicated he had committed. He implied without stating it is that all he did was talk about it, that he didn’t really harass the married woman or slide his hand up some young lady’s skirt uninvited. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, which I don’t, what kind of a blow-hard is proud of sexually assaulting women?

He made this very limited, very stiff apology worse by what he said next. Turning the subject from the apology to the election issues was in extremely poor taste, and then to go after Bill Clinton for his affairs negated any positive intent or outcome from his contrition.

Trump essentially said, “I’m bad, but Bill’s worse and Hillary’s as bad as Bill.”

But that’s not what people want to hear in an apology. They want to hear, “I’m bad and I’m sorry about it. Here is what I’m going to do to fix it.” They don’t want you talk about the other person’s transgressions, just to deal with your own.

Trump mentioned no plan of rehabilitation. He is not enlisting in a sensitivity training course. He is not contributing a few million to fund public education programs that train men and women not to condone rape and domestic violence. He has not agreed to become a spokesperson or speak at events about what a reformed sinner looks like.

No, Trump thinks that a simple “I’m sorry” will suffice to be forgiven and get the votes of American women and men.

But it won’t work. There was too much offensive about the comments and too much offensive about the apology.

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