A Trump Effect for Sexual Harassment and Assault Memories

Trump creates a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault

Posted Oct 28, 2016

Memories can hide and wait. They wait for the right moment to cascade back into awareness. When memories return, they can be powerful, surprising, and emotionally overwhelming,

Donald Trump has provided a moment for sexual harassment and assault memories to return to awareness and become part of a national conversation. His infamous taped comments in which he described his propensity to engage in sexual assault. His other comments, both decades old and current, in which he has regularly denigrated women. His insulting responses to the women who have stepped forward to state that he sexually assaulted them. For the past year, Trump’s treatment of women has been a central focus of this political campaign. The concern with Trump’s sexual harassment and assault has only escalated in the last weeks of the campaign. And many of Trump’s comments and behaviors have led countless women to recall their own experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Involuntary memories come into our minds based on retrieval cues. Something in the current environment matches something from the past. The match pulls a memory into awareness. The impact of the match between the retrieval context and the original event is one of the most clearly documented effects in human memory. Visit a place where you used to live. You’ll find a cascade of memories returning to your mind. You don’t have to search for these memories—the memories will find you. It may feel like the memories were hiding in the old neighborhood or your old house. But really the memories were hiding and waiting inside you.

You’ll likely be surprised by many of these memories. Surprised, because you may have thought you had forgotten those experiences. You may also find some of the memories emotionally powerful. You may feel those long forgotten emotions. You may experience a sense of nostalgia, a longing for those earlier times.

The power of retrieval cues isn’t limited to visiting an old house or neighborhood. Countless times, every day, we find memories returning to our thoughts. Many times we don’t know why the memories invade our thoughts. But more than likely there was something in the world around you that served as a retrieval cue for that memory.

The constancy of stories concerning Trump’s sexual harassments and assaults have served as powerful retrieval cues.

Many, if not most, women in our society have experienced sexual harassment. They have been catcalled on the streets. They’ve had men interrupt them in meetings. They’ve had people comment on the way they look and on what they wear. They’ve dealt with sexual propositions from strangers.

Many, if not most, women in our society have also experienced sexual assault. They’ve been groped and grabbed. They’ve been kissed by men when they haven’t granted permission. They’ve experienced the sort of attacks that Trump has described in his recorded conversations. They’ve experienced the types of attacks described by the women talking about their interactions with Trump.

With these stories constantly in the news, of course many women are finding a cascade of memories returning to awareness. Slights, put-downs, body shaming, groping, and worse have been constantly in the media and in the memories of women across the country and across the political spectrum.

What I find compelling is that the women have not remained silent. The political conversation has started a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. Women are speaking out. They are sharing their stories. They are talking about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault to other women. They’ve also been talking about their experiences with the men in their lives. For many men, this may be the first time they’ve heard such stories from the women they know.

Trump has started a national conversation about sexual harassment and sexual assault. These conversations are incredibly important. Women are finding out that they are not alone. Many women are discovering how widespread these experiences are. Their experiences are not their fault. No one asks to be harassed. No one wants to be grabbed and groped and assaulted. This isn’t the fault of the woman, and this isn’t rare. This is something that needs to change in our society.

Oddly, I see hope in the revelations from Trump and the women stepping forward to challenge Trump. I hope that the memories that come to mind for many women are widely shared. I hope that sharing these memories can provide support to women who have been harassed and assaulted. Just as importantly, I hope that the men in our country listen. I hope that the men recognize the constancy of these experiences for the women around them. I hope that men work to change their behaviors. I want men to call out the other men in their lives for sexism, harassment, and Trump-like “locker room talk.” I’m an optimist, and I hope that this conversation leads to meaningful change.