Donald Trump has a nasty way of talking to and about women.
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them,” he was recorded saying. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
In response to questions about this conversation that Trump had with American TV host Billy Bush in 2005, the Republican US presidential candidate has been dismissive, describing his words as mere “locker room talk”.
But the truth is, there is no binary between misogynist talk and other misogynist behaviour. Abuse and assault based on gender does not arise out of the blue. It is based on a culture of inequality and degradation, and the first, most potent way in which inequality and degradation are accepted is through talk.
'They're just words'
In India, we are familiar with words, particularly the ones that dehumanise and objectify, blame and dismiss. In 2014, Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav said about rapists, “Boys are boys… they will make mistakes.” (A few years previously, he had said of Mayawati: “is she so beautiful that anyone should want to rape her?”)
Later that same year, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Babulal Gaur said, “Rate of crimes against women depended on how completely dressed they [were] and how regularly they visited temples.”
In 2008, Sheila Dikshit of Congress said, “One should not be adventurous being a woman.” Mamta Sharma, a former chairman of the National Commission for Women, said, “Women should be careful about the way they dress because such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West. This is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”
It is “just words” when Bengali movie star and politician Dev makes a rape analogy describing what it is like to join politics: “Enjoy... It’s just like being raped yaar. You can shout or you can enjoy.”
We are told not to take words so seriously when actor Salman Khan says he “felt like a raped woman” after a physically rigorous film shoot.
Heck, we are having a national-level “locker room” conversation with Kapil Sharma on our television screens every night. His show, the most popular comedy show in the country, is rife with some of the most regressive language and stereotyping you can think of, along with a generous helping of ugly sexism.
“A word after a word after a word is power,” wrote Margaret Atwood in a poem about the creative agency denied to women. This line could just as easily be about the power of words, exercised against women, Dalits, Adivasis, and people who exist outside the socially defined mores of heteronormativity.
We are all familiar with the great power of ugly words – casteist and racist slurs, ways to dismiss entire communities and claim the so-called superiority of those who hold the most privilege.
It isn’t for nothing that the most abusive words in India are casteist and sexist. And it isn’t for nothing that generations of people have tried to erase or reclaim the words that marginalise them.
Trump’s so called “locker room banter” is no different. This is how sexism is constantly reinforced – with rape “jokes”, demeaning comments, stereotypes. It cannot be the standard against which some other, more violent, “real” misogyny is measured – it is, in itself, unacceptable.
Contrary to what Trump or anyone else in his position might say, words matter. They matter immensely, and how we use them reflects on our actions. You do not need to look far at how entrenched misogyny directly impacts women’s lives – it is plain in the humiliation and blame they face at home, in the workplace, on the streets. It is plain for anyone to see that words hurt us.
Nothing proves this more than the avalanche of testimonies from women who were sexually assaulted, that arrived after the release of the Trump tapes.
Woman after woman is coming forward to say that he groped them, kissed them without their consent, walked in on them changing. A woman sitting next to him on a plane, a reporter on assignment to interview him, beauty pageant contestants changing before a show.
Trump’s entitlement is writ large on every one of these incidents, and should teach us that words are not just words.
It is time to take away their power, by rejecting the idea that they are acceptable, that they are inevitable, that they are just banter.