What Michelle Obama Didn’t Say

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The first lady is right: enough is enough. But first we need starting to hold enablers and bystanders accountable for sexual assault.

Since Donald Trump’s videotaped confession of sexual assault came to light last week, we have been subjected to a sickening string of allegations from women who have recounted being groped and harassed by the GOP nominee. These include a woman who told the New York Times that Trump—a complete stranger—stuck his hand up her skirt on a first-class flight to New York in the 1980s, and a People magazine reporter who said that in 2005, Trump pinned her against a wall and forced his tongue down her throat. As Michelle Obama said on Wednesday, “Enough is enough.”

As a society, we have to acknowledge that successful sexual assault–successful, that is, from the perspective of perpetrator—isn’t a one-man job. It needs a crowd of excusers, enablers, and minimizers to ensure that the assault doesn’t end badly for the perpetrator, even if the victim complains. In the various institutions of American society, men (and it is almost always men) who commit sexual assault have mostly been able to count on that crowd of enablers. That has been particularly true of privileged men like Trump.

Although Trump has denied these new allegations, they have the ring of truth. Over the years, we have heard him on Howard Stern and listened to the similar stories of other women about his long history of sexual harassment and forced sexual encounters. We can also recognize the telltale signs of male entitlement in his bluster and self-absorption. The important question now is whether GOP leaders will repudiate Trump once and for all or continue to minimize both the seriousness of his offenses and their implications for his candidacy.

But it is not just the Republican Party. Examples of enabling and excusing sexual misconduct elsewhere abound. The military has promoted officers who rape while drumming out their female victims. Colleges and universities have looked the other way at serial sexual assault, particularly when committed by athletes and professors. Even in those rare instances when victims file criminal charges, judges often deliver unreasonably lenient sentences, sending the message that these crimes are just not all that serious.

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