On Thursday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addressed the sexual assault allegations against him at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida. After calling his multiple accusers "horrible liars," Trump took a moment to fixate on former People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff, who said Trump pushed her against a wall and kissed her without her consent in a first-person account she wrote for the website.
"Look at her," said Trump to the crowd. "Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don't think so."
The Trump campaign told Vox writer German Lopez Trump was "only asking people to look at Stoynoff's words." Still, Trump seemed to imply Stoynoff simply wasn't attractive enough for him to assault.
But sexual attraction has never been a prerequisite for sexual assault, which is straightforwardly defined as any sexual contact that occurs without the other person's consent. Prevailing feminist theory states that the main requirement is a desire for power. Physical appearance has nothing to do with it — which is exactly why Trump brought it up.
"By suddenly changing the topic to her appearance, Trump distracts us from any discussion about his actions," Karen Robertson, a women's studies professor at Vassar College, said in a phone interview on Thursday. Robertson said Trump is using a "deflection" tactic that has all of the trappings of textbook victim-blaming, but this time with a twist.
"Men accused of sexual assault are always projecting responsibility onto women — usually because of what they were wearing or if they were drunk — but in this case Trump's saying [Stoynoff] is too ugly, so he couldn't have done it," she said.
Robertson said it should come as no surprise that Trump would divert the conversation to women's looks. Over the course of his campaign, the Republican nominee has deemed GOP primary candidate Carly Fiorina unelectable because of her "face" and doubled down on insults against comedian Rosie O'Donnell, who he's called fat and a slob.
"Trump's obsession with women's appearance is now being mobilized to protect himself from a charge of sexual assault," said Robertson.
Trump didn't just revert back to his old ways with his plea for supporters to evaluate Stoynoff's attractiveness. His comments also endorsed a harmful notion that sexual assault is motivated foremost by attraction, not by violence or power.
Trump is walking back years of feminist work on defining sex as something "mutual and agreed upon," as Robertson says, and instead is returning to "ancient categories of male sexual rights and privilege" where men act on their desires without consideration for women's pleasure or, hell, their consent.
More pressing at the moment, though, is that Trump's indictment of Stoynoff's attractiveness seeks to establish the conditions under which the public should believe alleged victims. People who aren't a "10" in Trump's book, he implies, must be liars.
"It's clear Trump doesn't see women as independent agents in the world," Robertson said. "We don't have the right just to be. We're all subjected to his judgment and punished according to his categories."