Editor’s note: WARNING: This story contains graphic language.
It began Friday night, shortly after the world learned of the time Donald Trump bragged about forcing himself on women and grabbing them by the “pussy.”
He would later apologize and brush it off as “locker room talk.” Many, including author and social media star Kelly Oxford, saw it for what it was: sexual assault.
“Women: tweet me your first assaults,” she said to her 746,000 Twitter followers. “I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.”
The responses came flooding in, one after another.
“A drunk family friend in his 40s pinned me against the door at my granny’s & pressed himself on me. I was 15. Never told anyone.”
“Soccer coach discretely groped my boobs while demonstrating how not to block someone in gym class. I was 13.”
As one person noted, “This is going to be an intense weekend.”
The Republican candidate’s comments, which surfaced via audio leaked to the Washington Post, set off widespread denunciations from his party, the White House and beyond.
Elsewhere, on social media and in private conversations, Trump’s comments were a reminder of a culture that denigrates women and treats them as mere objects of sexual desire, referred to as rape culture.
Oxford noted as much within minutes of her tweet, as women shared their stories using the hashtag #NotOkay.
“I am currently receiving two sex assault stories per second. Anyone denying rape culture, please look at my timeline now,” she said.
‘Pussy grabs back’
The ripples continued through the weekend.
Later that evening, another rallying cry surfaced to mobilize the vote against Trump. Enraged by Trump’s comments, writer-performer Amanda Duarte posted on Facebook the phrase “November 8: Pussy Grabs Back.”
It’s one thing to hear Trump’s “misogynistic rhetoric” when he speaks in public in the form of “dog whistles and concern-trolling,” Duarte said. To hear him in an unguarded moment, talking to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush on the way to a taping, showed him to be “even more vile” in private.
“To hear a presidential candidate bragging about sexually assaulting women, with such an explicit statement, well, my pussy got really angry,” Duarte said in an email. “The disgusting braggadocio, the pride he clearly takes in violating women. He just revels in his power over female bodies. I want to use mine to destroy him.”
Journalist and “Feminist Fight Club” author Jessica Bennett saw Duarte’s post. In “a fit of feminist rage,” she borrowed an image of a cat from artist Stella Mars and transformed the phrase into a meme that spread through social media.
Actress America Ferrera used the hashtag to share a tongue-in-cheek map from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight on what the electoral college would look like if women refuse to vote Trump. On the night of the second presidential debate, it became a rallying cry on Twitter for anti-Trump sentiment.
It even became a song.
Duarte and Bennett partnered with apparel company Female Collective to make a T-shirt of the design with proceeds to benefit The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
They hope supporters will wear it on election day.
“To me it was the perfect response, because it managed to be outraged and disgusted but also action-oriented and funny at once,” Bennett said.
A sign of progress
The impact spread beyond social media.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE), said it experienced a 33% spike in calls from Friday to Sunday night.
Such spikes are common whenever a case of sexual violence receives significant media attention, RAINN President Scott Berkowitz said. But something about this instance proved extreme.
On a typical weekend, four to five callers might be waiting in the queue; this weekend, at times, 40 to 50 people were waiting to speak to an operator, Berkowitz said.
Many callers specifically referenced Trump.
“Whenever survivors start hearing or reading a lot about sexual assault, for many of them it prompts the desire to get help or the need to talk to someone about what happened,” he said.
Shocking as the comments were, especially coming from a presidential candidate, Berkowitz saw a silver lining in the backlash.
“The public has very broadly taken a lot of offense and politicians have been coming out to denounce the comments,” he said.
“I think that’s a sign that the culture has made a lot of progress. But on an individual level there’s still a lot of work that we need to do.”