It seems likely that Trump is aware that it is not considered nice to seduce married women or grab genitalia without consent. So why would someone—anyone—brag about such behaviors? The answer is that many forces in our society still reward the objectification of women.
What does it mean to treat someone like an object? Objectification means using other people for your own purposes with no consideration or even recognition of their feelings or needs.
Consider the first scenario on the tape, in which Trump describes his attempt to seduce a married woman. There is no suggestion that he cares for the woman. He does not appear to have given any consideration to the devastating effects an extramarital affair might have on her life or her family. According to his statement, his supposed act of kindness to help her shop for furniture was a front, entirely motivated by a desire for conquest. That is all textbook objectification. As is often the case, the imbalance in impact is extreme but ignored. Are bragging rights over a sexual conquest really more important than another person’s marriage?
Why would someone brag about a “failed” seduction attempt? People have been focusing on Trump’s comments, but to understand the psychology behind them requires attending to Billy Bush’s responses. You can hear “Whoa!!” and “That’s huge news!” and laughing in response to Trump’s rather vulgar story. Other men appear to be present (you can later see them getting off the van with Trump and Bush), and they say nothing audible. There’s no expression of shock or condemnation at a story that clearly violates our social norms. Why?
One reason for such behavior is rigid masculinity norms, which push men to act as if they are sexually interested and available all the time. So a man can still get credit for making an unsuccessful sexual advance, because it supports an impression of an enormous sexual appetite. In some circles, such a man can seem more masculine than a man who treats a married woman as a colleague and not a sexual object.
The taped conversation, remarkably enough, turns even darker. Trump asserts that his celebrity allows him to get away with sexual assault, in the form of groping women’s genitals and other body parts without consent. Again, Bush’s response is reinforcing, “Whatever you want,” with more laughter.
It is virtually impossible to imagine the same conversation occurring if there was even one woman present. Trump referred to it as “locker room banter.” Many advocates for non-violence refer to these kinds of exchanges as “rape culture.”
The underlying problem is that objectification of women is still a path to social status. The very end of the conversation offers another excellent example. Once they leave the van, you might think that Bush would be glad to change to a more neutral topic or get back to business. Or, I don’t know, get away as fast as possible and take a shower. However, once Arianne Zucker arrives, Bush presses her to make a choice regarding the relative sexual desirability of him versus Trump! To his credit, Bush has acknowledged that he was foolish for playing along, but his response also shows how difficult it is to stand up to sexual objectification in the moment. Bush had a lot more power in that situation than many boys and young men in similar situations, who must deal with objectifying comments from bosses, coaches, and others.
If we really want sexual objectification to end, what we need are alternative responses. One part of the solution is to work on better bystander behaviors. Instead of “Whoa!” and laughter, a better response to the seduction claim would have been something as simple as expressing in a shocked tone, “Married!” A really good response would have offered a short lesson in empathy, such as, “I wouldn’t want to cause trouble—they seem like a really happy couple.” For the claims of groping with impunity, even silence would have been a better response than laughter. An empathy-teaching response would be something like, “You wouldn’t seriously do something like that to them, would you?” Even a chest-thumping response would have been better, such as “I’ve never needed to force myself on a woman.”
We need responses that not only remind people of social norms, but also teach them that violating these social norms is no path to power and success. The way to build yourself up is by making yourself stronger, not by treating someone else as less important or less human.
You know, in a way, I feel sorry for Trump and Bush too, because even though objectification harms the targets, it harms the objectifiers too. Someone who sees sex only as a tool for power loses the profound benefits of true sexual intimacy. All that boasting, and for one fleeting moment you can see the insecurity underneath it all, as they wait to see how they will be evaluated by Arianne Zucker. Real self-worth—the kind that doesn’t need constant reassurance from others—must be earned legitimately, through integrity and empathic, respectful relationships.
Note: In Sunday's debate (Oct 9, 2016), Trump said he had not assaulted any women. Even empty boasts, however, are objectifying. We need other ways for men to seek self-esteem without insulting women.
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. is editor of Psychology of Violence, Research Professor of Psychology at the University of the South, and a clinical psychologist who studies violence and resilience.
Have your children been exposed to the news coverage about this? Here are two guides for parents who want to talk to their children about sexual assault:
Learn more about my work at http://lifepathsresearch.org.