The Donald Trump news cycle is not ready to burn out yet, not while his lawyer, in a very Trump-like show of belligerence, told a reporter that spousal rape is legal when it most certainly is not. This week, the Daily Beast issued a timely reminder that Ivana Trump accused her ex-husband of raping her in 1989 during her divorce deposition. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen denied this by arguing “she felt raped emotionally” but not criminally, whatever that means. (The one described in Harry Hurt III’s 1993 book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, actually sounds just like a criminal rape, complete with physical violence.)
But then he added, to goose his argument, “You cannot rape your spouse,” and adding, in direct opposition to reality, “There’s very clear case law.”
Thankfully, the response so far to this story is public outrage—causing Trump’s lawyer to quasi-apologize—because most of us easily grasp that there is nothing even remotely okay about throwing your spouse down and forcing yourself on them, as Trump was alleged to have done. There’s even been some stunned disbelief that it took until 1993 for all 50 states to ban raping your spouse. But we shouldn’t be so surprised, as there are more than a few people out there who continue to argue that it still should be legal to rape your spouse.
As Irin Carmon at msnbc.com writes, “There is a long history of conservative opposition to the very concept of marital rape, which is a fairly recent concept in law.” She cites conservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly, Virginia legislator Richard Black, and the infamous Missouri congressman Todd Akin, all criticizing bans on spousal rape. In most cases, they claim that they worry about the poor hypothetical husbands falsely accused by vindictive women during divorce proceedings. (Of course, people file false reports on other crimes, too, including assault and theft, but for some reason no one thinks the solution is to legalize those behaviors.)
But the fact that this attitude has a home in conservative circles shouldn’t really be a surprise. After all, resistance to the idea that all forced sex is rape is hardly limited to the question of spousal rape. Public discourse about sexual assault has been on the rise for years now, and the conservative punditry is still a reliable source of people spouting ignorance about rape that sounds more at home in some misogynist Internet forum than in supposedly mainstream media.
Like James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal playing the “rape is just drunk girls expressing regret” card. (In reality, it’s that rapists pick intoxicated women because they know they won’t be believed.) Or George Will suggesting that a clear-cut case of rape can’t count because the victim willingly dated the rapist in the past. Or Andrea Tantaros on Fox News whining, “Where’s the personal responsibility for both sides?”—by which she means the victim and the rapist. “Really!” she continued. “If we say ‘personal responsibility for women,’ the feminists go berserk! They’re like, ‘No, we should be able to wear whatever we want and drink as much as we want and pass out in the streets.’”
Yes, in 2014, a pundit was literally equating the victimless behaviors of wearing a short skirt and overdrinking with making the choice to physically violate someone against her will. While wearing a really short skirt at the time, because that is the era we live in. (Not that Tantaros can’t wear what she wants, of course. I promise I will never equate her short skirt wearing, which is utterly inoffensive behavior no matter what she says about it, with the rape of another human being.)
None of this is particularly surprising. While rape is on the extreme end of the spectrum, women’s basic right to bodily autonomy continues to be hotly controversial, with conservative forces mounting daily assaults on it. Giving women the right to say no to pregnancy is treated, in right wing circles, like it’s the harbinger of the apocalypse. Just this week, Republican legislators tried to defund Planned Parenthood, which is just the latest of such efforts in recent years. Of course, Republicans are hustling as hard as they can to strip abortion access away from women, particularly in red states. And no, this isn’t about “life,” because part of the Republican assault on female autonomy involves attempts to strip women of their contraception coverage in their insurance plans, giving the power of whether or not to use insurance to pay for contraception over to their employers instead.
The common theme here is that women’s bodies don’t belong to themselves. The red state abortion assaults conducted under the banner of “states rights” imply that women’s bodies belong to those states. The attacks on contraception coverage in your insurance suggest that women’s bodies belong to their employers. Hell, there’s even one Republican suing to strip his own daughters of birth control coverage, with the legal arguments unsubtly suggesting that those bodies belong not to them but Daddy. The grotesque rape apologist arguments made by conservatives range from suggesting that your date has a right to override your “no” to the idea that, if you drink or wear a short skirt, you have somehow become public property, for any rando to do with what he wishes.
Obviously, how much autonomy conservatives “grant” women varies a lot from person to person, but the answer invariably falls short of how much autonomy men are allowed just simply by existing in the world. Trump’s role in the campaign is to take every gross conservative prejudice like this, and present it in its unvarnished, most grotesque form. It shouldn’t be a surprise that his team would pull the same stunt when it comes to communicating conservative hostility to female autonomy.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.