Melania Trump, 'Boy Talk' and the Bystander Effect

On Monday, Melania Trump spoke with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, giving her first public interview since her husband, Donald Trump, was accused of multiple acts of sexual assault and sexual aggression.

When asked by Cooper about the acts her husband is heard describing on the tapes with then-Access Hollywood co-host Billy Bush (who has since been let go from his hosting responsibilities for the Today show as a result of the things heard on the tape), Melania dismissed her husband’s remarks, saying “boys talk.”

“The boys, the way they walk when they grow up and they want to sometimes show each other, ‘Oh, this and that’ and talking about the girls,” she said.

Interestingly, what Melania describes as boy talk was committed by her husband when he was 59 years old. As many on social media pointed out, this defense positions Donald Trump as a guileless, irresponsible, impish child who cannot be held accountable for his words and actions.

And this was only reinforced when she told Cooper, “Sometimes I say I have two boys at home — I have my young son and I have my husband. But I know how some men talk, and that’s how I saw it, yes.”

Some on social media took this analogy to perpetuate the Republican presidential nominee’s actions as “normal” for all members of the male gender.

“It is boy talk,” says Michael Kimmel, PhD, professor of sociology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook and the executive director of the University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, to Yahoo Beauty. “But we expect boys to grow out of this kind of talk by the time they graduate from high school at least. By the time you’re married with kids, you don’t talk like this about women any more. So Melania’s right — this is completely regressive.”

As for adult men who continue this kind of behavior?

Kimmel told Yahoo last year that sexual violence is committed by a “fairly small number of men who are serial predators who feel entitled to sexual assault.”

For these men, however, Kimmel explains that behavior dismissed as “boys talk” by the former model is “a kind of currency among men” who believe that the type of behavior they describe committing “is just harmless fun — not rape.”

Furthermore, Kimmel noted that more often than not what we think of as rape culture is perpetuated by “the silence of some men enabling the predatory behavior of others.”

In other words, when blatant descriptions of acts of sexual violence are written off as just “boy talk” or “locker room banter,” bystanders who excuse this kind of behavior allow it to continue by normalizing the idea that one gender is forcibly entitled to the bodies of another.

“Melania was half-right,” Kimmel tells Yahoo Beauty today. “She doesn’t quite understand the depth of the contempt for women her husband expressed [on the Access Hollywood tape], that he believed he’s perfectly entitled to have access to women’s bodies as much as he wants. But she does understand that violence against women is social. Trump said that to the other guys on the bus because he wanted them to say, ‘That’s awesome.’ He wanted other guys to think that he was awesome. She gets that without an audience, the bully has no reason to act. Without an audience, the predator has no reason to boast about his behavior.”

Kimmel also notes that when discussing the Trump comments on the Access Hollywood tape, it’s critical to distinguish mere “boy talk” from actual behavior.

“Lots of guys say stupid things about women when they’re with other men. If you were walking down the street and a guy makes a comment about you to another guy, my feeling is that this is posturing for other guys when there’s the occasion for it. This has far less to do with you than you might think, in that respect,” Kimmel explains.

However, he notes, when it comes to what Trump is heard saying on the Access Hollywood tape, “This is not simply talk. This would be like my saying, ‘Oh — I walked past my local branch of Chase bank the other day and the register was open and I took all of the money.’ That’s not just talk — that’s a confession. It’s a crime. I have watched enough episodes of Law and Order to know a confession when I hear one.”

This is also a prime example of the Bystander Effect, the psychological phenomenon wherein the presence of others keeps people from coming forward to help during an emergency situation. In this case, when enough people dismiss sexual violence as something that “boys” are expected to do to women, it creates a cycle where fewer people find it necessary to call out such behavior.

Additionally, comments like Mrs. Trump’s construe the definition of sexual assault for a larger public. “No, that’s not sexual assault. He didn’t say that,” Mrs. Trump told Cooper about her husband’s words on the 2005 tape.

Also not part of being a good bystander? Blaming the victim.

Which is something Melania seemed to do in her conversation with Cooper, telling him that part of the reason why she dismisses the accusations against her husband is because of the kind of behavior she’s seen in women. “I see many, many women coming to him and giving phone numbers and, you know, want to work for him — in appropriate stuff from women,” she said during the CNN interview.

Kimmel notes that while it’s well-documented that “rock stars and athletes” have groupies, “they’re not running for president.” And, he adds, “Ok you’re a celebrity and you have groupies. So what? You just say no. It’s very easy.”

Victims and survivors of sexual assault are never to blame. The only people who are responsible for sexual violence are the people who are committing it — and creating a culture where victims are made to believe that they are the ones responsible for the harm done to them stigmatizes survivors — and lets perpetrators off under the excuse of that this is something that they are merely expected to do, because “boys talk.”

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