To the Teacher:
The presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2016, raised some important but difficult issues about sexism and sexual assault.
Many students either watched the debate or have heard about it. This creates a teachable moment - though a challenging one - in our classrooms. How can we use these events to increase students’ awareness of and sensitivity to sexism and sexual assault? How can we encourage students to stand up to it or speak out about it?
Below are several activities to open up discussion in your classroom. In the first activity, students hear about and discuss the video and the debate. Then, students read and discuss excerpts from First Lady Michelle Obama's speech responding to the video. Students then share their thoughts and feelings in a "listening circle" and brainstorm ways we can increase our level of respect for each other.
Before discussing this issue, you may find it helpful to review these guidelines for addressing difficult or controversial issues. This lesson does not include explicit language or detailed discussion of sexual assault.. However, be aware that some students may feel particularly sensitive about this issue. You may want to alert students to this before you begin the discussion.
Ask students if they saw the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Sunday, October 9, 2016. If students didn’t see the debate, did they hear about it?
Tell students that one issue that came up in the debate was a video from 2005 in which Donald Trump made offensive comments about women. We’ll be discussing this issue today.
Read aloud or summarize the following information:
On Sunday, October 9, 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had their second televised debate. (A transcript is here.)
The debate opened with a question from a voter about whether the campaigns were setting a good example for the nation’s youth. This quickly turned into a discussion about a 2005 video of Trump that had recently been released by the Washington Post.
The 3-minute tape was recorded while Trump and NBC host Billy Bush rode a bus to the set of Access Hollywood. In the video, Trump boasts about how, because he is a "star," he can grope and grab women whenever he likes. He disparages one woman that he "moved on," but who refused to have sex with him.
The video touched off a firestorm of controversy. Dozens of Republican politicians formally renounced Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was "sickened" by Trump’s comments, and would no longer defend him.
In the debate, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Trump about the video: "You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?"
Trump responded: "I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker-room talk."
Cooper pressed further: "Just for the record, though, are you saying that ... you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?" Trump denied that he had done this, adding, "I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do."
- Why do you think Anderson Cooper called Trump's actions "sexual assault"? Help students understand that sexual assault is defined as "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."
In her response, Hillary Clinton said: "What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. ... We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms."
For many women, the controversy brought up memories of having been groped or assaulted themselves. On Twitter, author Kelly Oxford invited women to "tweet me your first assaults." Within several days over 27 million women had tweeted about their experiences, using the hashtag #notokay. The responses underscored how common these experiences are. An estimated 80% of sexual assault incidents go unreported.
- Why do you think the great majority of sexual assaults go unreported? (Reasons include a victim's fear of retribution, shame, or worry that they will be blamed for the incident.)
Meanwhile, professional athletes expressed anger at the idea that comments like Trump’s were commonplace in men's locker rooms: "Just for reference. I work in a locker room (every day)... that is not locker room talk. Just so you know..." tweeted Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley. He later tweeted, "If that's the talk you hear around you, then be the place where change begins. Regardless of this election let's be a better people."
Michelle Obama’s Response
First Lady Michelle Obama spoke out against Trump’s behavior in a speech in Manchester, NH, less than a week after the tape was made public. Below are three segments from that speech.
Ask volunteers to read the segments out loud. Pause after each to reflect on and discuss the questions that follow.
"The fact is that in this election, we have a candidate for president of the United States who, over the course of his lifetime and the course of this campaign has said things about women that are so shocking. So demeaning... I simply will not repeat anything here today. And last week we saw this candidate actually bragging about sexually assaulting women. And I can't believe that I'm saying that....
It would be dishonest and disingenuous for me to move on to the next thing like this was just a bad dream. This is not something we can ignore. It's not something we can sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election season. Because this was not just a lewd conversation. This wasn't locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior ...."
Invite students’ thoughts and feelings about this quote. Then ask some or all of the following questions:
- How does Michelle Obama refer to the kind of remarks that Trump made on the Access Hollywood bus?
- Do you think "bragging about sexually assaulting women" and "speaking about sexually predatory behavior" is an accurate description? Why or why not? Do you have better/more accurate language to describe this kind of behavior?
- How does Michelle Obama feel about ignoring such comments? What do you think about this?
"I feel it so personally. And I'm sure that many of you do too. Particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It is frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It's like that sick sinking feeling you get when you're walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares just a little too long, you feel uncomfortable in your own skin."
Invite students’ thoughts and feelings about this quote. Then ask the following questions:
- What does Michelle Obama say about feeling this personally?
- Can you relate to the experiences and feelings that she describes?
"This is disgraceful. It is intolerable. And it doesn't matter what party you belong to ... no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse. And I know it's a campaign, but this isn't about politics. It's about basic human decency. It's about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this for any longer - not for another minute... And how is this affecting men and boys in this country? Because I can tell you that the men in my life do not talk about women like this. And I know my family is not unusual. And to dismiss this as every day locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere.... And like us, these men are worried about the impact this election is having on our boys, who are looking for role models of what it means to be a man."
Invite students’ thoughts and feelings about this quote. Then ask some or all of the following questions:
- What does Michelle Obama say about exposing children to this kind of talk and behavior? What do you think and feel about this?
- What kind of role model does Michelle Obama think young people should have?
Listening circles give people a chance to say what they are thinking and feeling and can help engender mutual understanding and support.
Ask students to seat themselves in a circle. Provide some guidelines: Each person will be invited to speak for up to two minutes about whatever is on their minds (in response to a prompt). When one person is speaking, the others should pay good attention but not comment. Participation is completely voluntary - anyone can pass if they choose. What people say in the circle should be kept confidential.
Begin the first go round with this prompt:
- What thoughts or feelings do you have about the controversy we’ve just heard about? Allow more than one go-round if students seem to have more to share.
Next, ask students:
- Have you ever felt pressured to say disrespectful things, or things that could be considered sexist? What was your response and how did you feel?
- Imagine that you heard someone saying disrespectful or sexist things. What do you hope you might do or say in response?
- What positive change do you hope might happen as a result of this controversy?
Ask students to think about ways we or our friends have felt disrespected based on gender.
What experiences have we had or heard about? Chart students' responses.
Ask students to break into small groups. Give each group a blank piece of chart paper and markers. Explain that their task is to brainstorm ideas for improving the way we treat each other. How can we increase the level of respect we have for each other and promote gender equity?
Remind them of the rules of brainstorming:
- They will have a limited amount of time to come up with ideas: five minutes—you’ll time them.
- During that time they need to come up with at least five ideas (more would be even better).
- They shouldn’t discuss or criticize any ideas, though they can ask clarifying questions if they don’t understand
When the five minutes is up, the recorder from each group presents their ideas.
How do the students feel about the ideas they came up with? Ask for a couple of volunteers to share their thoughts with the group.