Trump’s information blackout on sexual assault
Countless reports of Harvey Weinstein’s horrendous behavior — some admitted, some denied — have been filed, thanks to the scores of brave women who have shared their often chilling stories. Yet President Trump condemned the movie mogul without as much as a mention of his accusers’ courage. Trump was, in his words, “not at all surprised” by the slew of rape, sexual assault, and harassment accusations against one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. And in nearly the same breath as his denunciation of Weinstein, Trump defended boasting about his own sexual predation, calling it “locker room.” Many women and men know that the behavior that Trump claimed as his celebrity entitlement is neither harmless nor permissible. Sadly, the president remains clueless about the toxicity of his own words.
Clearly, Trump’s authority to pass judgment on issues of sexual wrongdoing is severely compromised. But ignoring Weinstein’s accusers in his effort to excuse his own wrongdoing is inexcusable. Because of an outpouring of public support, the actors and others who Weinstein targeted will likely survive the affront. Thousands have joined the #MeToo Twitter campaign and told of experiences often shocking and just as often entirely familiar. What is more startling and offensive than Trump’s lack of concern for Weinstein’s accusers and those weighing in on social media is the official behavior of the Trump administration to stifle the voices of sexual assault survivors.
And the erasure of women’s realities is exactly what happened in August, when administration officials removed from the White House website a 2014 report issued by the Obama White House Council on Women and Girls. The report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,’’ gives an overview of the problem of sexual assault, with particular emphasis on campus violence. It notes that 22 million women and 1.6 million men have been raped. It gives notice that certain populations are at higher risk of being raped or sexually assaulted, including women of color, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, prison inmates (of both genders), and the homeless.
Native American women were given specific attention, a long overdue acknowledgment of their struggles with gender violence. And the 38-page document offers much-needed guidance to institutions and law enforcement on how to keep people safe. This is all important information for addressing the challenges we face in eliminating, or at the very least reducing, the frequency of sexual abuse.
Those seeking information found in the guidebook are instructed to go to the Obama Archives. Likewise with information on LGBT rights, which the Trump administration also removed from the White House website. But what our government measures and records signals its priorities. And how our government treats data signals how it will make policy. Purging valid data sends the wrong message about the critical need for a robust response to an issue.
It is deeply troubling that sexual assault data and best-practices protocol for conducting sexual assault forensic examinations was deleted just weeks before Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, announced plans to withdraw Obama administration Title IX guidelines for campus sexual assault. In the recent past, we have made great strides in identifying the severity of gender violence on American campuses. Yet DeVos has eschewed Obama administration guidance that requires equal treatment of the accused and their accusers, including “adequate, reliable, and impartial investigations of complaints.”
DeVos has promised public hearings on sexual assault on college campuses. But what happens to the work that has been done? To make sure that it is not permanently lost, those who know firsthand the ravages of sexual harassment and assault must step into the breach to fill what is missing from the current official records. And colleges and university leaders grappling with keeping women and men safe on campuses should appear before the secretary of education to tell their stories as well. Facts matter, and we cannot return to the days when policy was based on stereotypes and misogynistic tropes about how easy it is to claim sexual assault.
Equally concerning is the news that Trump is considering closing the White House Council on Women and Girls, under whose auspices the report on rape and sexual assault was commissioned. We know that gender violence imperils women’s health, education, housing, work, and other outcomes and opportunities. The Commission’s determination to bring all federal agencies to bear on issues of gender disparities in the country should be the model for effective and complete policy-making.
Countless people have made it clear that not enough is being done to address sexual harassment, extortion, assault, and rape. The White House promises to update the whitehouse.gov website, and it should include accurate information that will lead to solutions. In the meantime, in this moment of heightened awareness, we must continue to make our voices heard, even if the administration turns a deaf ear.
Anita F. Hill is an attorney, author, and professor at Brandeis University.