Op-Ed: For survivors of sexual abuse, the presidential campaign is a giant trigger

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally in Roanoke, Va. on Sept. 24.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
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There’s a constituency that has watched this year’s presidential campaign unfold with more horror than disbelief. This constituency, largely unseen, consists of men and women for whom the unprecedented emphasis on sexual behavior has been a trigger for the post-traumatic stress disorder that often results from sexual assault.

A trigger is something that reminds you so vividly of your attack that you can’t control your reaction. Triggers come from out of the blue, and your response is beyond your control. A trigger could be a scent, a sound or a combination of sensory things. It could be as simple as someone standing too close to you, or as complex as the faint aroma of someone’s pipe tobacco. With no warning, you’re reliving the attack. You are physically in the present, but physiologically, psychologically and emotionally, you are under attack.

This is what triggering feels like from the inside: Your gut clenches as fear overwhelms you; sometimes you are instantly nauseated. You may feel suddenly uneasy, panicky or even feel an overriding need to flee. Your breathing may increase, or you may find yourself holding your breath. You may feel angry, or exhausted and depressed. The rise of these feelings is overwhelming and inexplicable. You may or may not recognize that you’ve been triggered, or even what the trigger was.


When men are excused for vile, dehumanizing behavior with such dismissive phrases as ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘locker room talk,’ we perpetuate rape culture.

Donald Trump’s actions on stage at the second debate — looming behind Hillary Clinton, bullying and threatening her — coming after the revelation that he boasted about his unfettered ability to grope women, triggered the 50-year-old trauma of my molestation as a prepubescent child. When I wrote as much on Facebook, an unsettling number of the commenters said they, too, had found the debates triggering.

The moment Trump’s behavior is brought up, his supporters decry former President Bill Clinton as a worse sexual predator. Clinton has been accused of sexual impropriety with at least five women. Many people believe that Hillary Clinton was complicit in her husband’s infidelities, and some, including Trump, assert that she threatened her husband’s conquests.

Whatever the truth of these allegations, they’re no comfort to those of us who have contended with the deep pain of sexual abuse. We are a large cohort. When blogger and social media star Kelly Oxford invited her Twitter followers to share the stories of their first sexual assaults, she received nearly 27 million responses over the course of three days.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that sexual assaults have fallen by more than half since 1993.

While that’s good news, RAINN also reports that: 1 out of 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime; about 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime; 63,000 children a year are victims of sexual abuse, one third of whom are younger than 12.


One out of six women, one out of 33 men. But we have remained relatively quiet in the last few weeks because, for us, the whole campaign has of late been a potential trigger. So we turn off the television and radio, turn away from the lurid headlines in newspapers and tabloids, and scroll past those political posts on social media as fast as we can. We may figuratively, if not literally, cover our ears. We may say “I’m not interested,” or “I’ve made up my mind,” but privately, secretly, we’re avoiding the subject as completely as possible. Or, as I have done both here and on Facebook, we may confront the issue with anger and grief – even as we relive those moments of terror.

When men are excused for vile, dehumanizing behavior with such dismissive phrases as “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk,” we perpetuate rape culture. Rape culture empowers bullies and sexual predators, because it normalizes male sexual violence and shifts blame to its victims. It is a form of emotional terrorism employed against women and children. Men also suffer because they have to live up to hyper-aggressive definitions of what it means to “be a man.”

This year, I hope you’ll vote your conscience. Those of us who have endured debasement and dehumanization will vote, too. The difference between us and you, however, is that neither “I’m with her” or “Make America great again” will bring us peace. No matter who is elected, we can look forward to four years of continued shrill accusations and counter-accusations of sexual assault. Donald Trump’s not going away, and neither is Bill Clinton.

Robin Mather is a third-generation journalist and the author of “The Feast Nearby.”

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