“It’s just words, folks.”
That’s how Republican presidential Donald Trump and his campaign staff justified his 2005 comments boasting about how he could do anything to women, including kiss them or “grab them by their p—y,” without their consent during Sunday night’s second presidential debate.
CNN anchor and debate co-moderator Anderson Cooper pressed Trump about his comments, leaked to the Washington Post, early on during Sunday’s debate. “You called what you said ‘locker room banter.’ You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault,” Cooper said. “You bragged that you sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway appeared on CNN immediately after the debate, where CNN anchor Dana Bash pressed her on Trump’s continued characterization of his 2005 comments as “locker room banter.” Conway called the remarks “disgusting,” but said she stood behind Trump.
Bash said that top Republicans have characterized his comments as condoning sexual assault. “That’s a very unfortunate phrase and people really should stop using it,” Conway replied. “He did not say the word [sic] ‘sexual assault.'”
In an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly also on Sunday night, Conway reiterated her point, and accused members of Congress of sexual assault without naming who she was referring to. “Let me tell you something, there are members of Congress, current and former, who have rubbed up against women and who have put their tongues in their mouths uninvited,” Conway told Fox News. “Maybe when I was younger and prettier that may have happened to me.”
“In other words, these people on their high horses are accusing him of being this awful person,” Conway continued. “And really the words, I think, that were most harmful is when everybody is running around saying, ‘He’s condoning sexual assault.’ No he’s not.”
The Justice Department, as the Washington Post noted, agrees with the definition of consent Cooper provided on Sunday night, defining sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient” — and yes, grabbing a woman “by the p—y” without her consent would fall under that definition.
According to a 2014 study, almost 18% of male college students said they didn’t understand that a sexual encounter without consent always constituted rape. Another study showed that 61% of men interpret body language as consent — which isn’t sufficient, nearly all experts say. What’s more, 35% of sexual assault victims don’t report their crimes to law enforcement, per a 2007 study, because it was “unclear that it was a crime or that harm was intended.”
There’s already confusion about what constitutes consent — the question of if and how a victim consented to a sexual encounter often becomes the key disagreement in instances of adjudicating allegations of sexual assault. That’s why more and more universities are educating their students about the definition of consent, and why the White House has made explaining consent a central focus of its campaign to end sexual assault.
So, Kellyanne Conway and anyone else should understand that you don’t need to say the words “sexual assault” in order for something to be sexual assault.