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We Need to Believe Ourselves, Because Donald Trump Sure as Hell Won’t

Just when we thought this election couldn’t get more horrendously traumatic, we have to sit here listening to an orange-faced sexual predator tell the universe, in the most demeaning of terms, that women are liars

These words are an absolute nightmare. They are the horrible things that have been said to us when we have come forward with our own stories of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence. They are the comments we have feared and the dismissals that float up in our thoughts after midnight.

For me, the most poignant part of this gruesome tirade is more subtle: Trump’s denials represent not only what abusers repeatedly say; they represent rhetoric that we too often begin to believe ourselves.

I realized recently that I’ve never told a story about a personal experience of sexual violence without prefacing it with the phrase: “It’s not a big deal, but…”

“It’s a small thing, but…”

“It wasn’t that bad, but…”

I wonder: Why do even I, a professional feminist — often the shrillest, most militant, and most obnoxious woman in the room — continually dismiss my own experiences of gendered violence?

What is so deep about victim blaming that it effects us even when we understand how it works?

Trump’s constant, categorical dismissal and belittlement of women who accused him of sexual assault is geared toward not only making the women he has harassed doubt themselves — it’s a case of national gas lighting. It’s like Trump has read an instructional manual entitled “Ways to Dismiss a Victim.”

Step one: Say she is making it up.

Step two: Say she is attention-seeking/part of a worldwide Hillary-Clinton-sponsored conspiracy.

Step three: Say she is not hot enough for you to have assaulted her, as though this isn’t a rancid justification plucked from the MRA-authored sewers of misogynistic inhumanity.

All of these tactics not only cause other people to disbelieve victims, they pressure victims to disbelieve ourselves.

This brings us to step four in the Instructional Manual of Shit: When victims’ confidence in ourselves and our experience has been totally shattered, bring out the real doozy: “If it really happened, why didn’t you report it?”

I want to bang my head into the table that this level of rape apologia continues to exist, but this is a necessary moment to remind ourselves. There are many important reasons we do not report violence: Because there is no one we trust to report to. Because we can’t bear the humiliation we feel will follow. Because we don’t want the aggressor to be pushed into a hostile criminal justice system. Because we fear retaliation. Because the person who has done it is so important — a billionaire or a presidential candidate or our boss — that we don’t dare speak for fear of being bulldozed under the over-watchful eye of the American media, or around the water cooler. 

Finally, many of us do not speak up because we don’t believe that our feelings of violation and harm matter. And we don’t believe we matter because abusers embark on campaigns to discredit us and convince us that sexual violence is not a big deal, and because the entire culture is complicit in this.

Take Trump’s vicious attack on People reporter Natasha Stoynoff, whom Trump assaulted when she was covering him for a story. Trump said that the story could not be true, because if it were, Stoynoff would have published it as “one of the biggest stories of the year.”

Stoynoff wrote that she didn’t publish the story because she was “afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me.” 

As a writer, this resonates with me deeply. I remember the time a big, powerful Harvard donor made a sexualizing comment toward me when I interviewed him as a 19-year-old college freshman. I remember how he asked that I not print the comment, and how I myself dismissed it, assuming that big, powerful men commenting on my undergarments was merely a part of journalism and of being a girl.  

Was the comment small? Was it too small to come forward with? Was it insignificant, no big deal?

If gender-based violence is really “no big deal,” why do perpetrators try so hard — through persuasion and coercion and abuse — to convince us not to make it public?

If sexual harassment and assault are so small — too small to come forward with — why do they often stay with us, sometimes for years, often taking up our space and lives with their bigness?

Maybe when we as survivors are told our complaints are “too small” to be taken seriously, it’s not actually the complaint people are referring to.

Maybe they’re trying to convince us that we’re too small. That sexual violence just comes with the territory of being queer, or brown, or a child, or a woman. That our dignity is not enough, that we are not big enough to matter.

Maybe they use these tactics to stomp us down, because if we all actually believed ourselves — if we actually realized how big we could be — our rage would end them.

Watching all of this play out is gross and hard. We need to give ourselves time and space to process the daily assault on our dignity and find a way to keep fighting which is not dictated by the orange monster’s vitriol. As Mahroh writes, one way to do this is to let ourselves feel rage — especially for people of color who are racialized in such a way that their anger is perceived as threatening.

Another way is to do ourselves the basic decency that Trump and his army of rape apologists will not. It is a simple kindness, but it goes far: believe ourselves. Believe that it happened. Believe that it was wrong. Believe that it is big enough, that we are big enough, to count.

After all, it’s only when we stop beating ourselves up that we can go kick their asses.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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