Monday, October 17, 2016

Billy Bush

Last week, the New York Times reported that Billy Bush, one of the hosts of NBC's morning program "Today," was negotiating his severance package. This follows the release of the now famous and infamous recording in which Donald Trump is heard candidly boasting about his attempts to seduce Bush's former co-host at "Access Hollywood," Nancy O'Dell, and about his propensity for sexually assaulting women in general.  (A tape and transcript of this can be found here:   Bush, throughout much of the exchange, plays the role of fawning sycophant, simultaneously encouraging and savoring Trump's sordid accounts.  In his transparent hero-worship,  Bush's encouragement of Trump's tales of sexual conquest appears to be a facilitation of Trump's further aggrandizement, not unlike rubbing a giant symbolic phallus in order to marvel as it grows to its full turgid magnificence. (I have always been struck by the homoerotic nature of male bonding rituals.  One wonders that the anti-LGBT- and homophobic attitudes of many of the men who engage in such behavior does not outweigh their propensity for engaging in it.)  At the same time, Bush obviously hopes to derive a vicarious sexual thrill from Trump's stories; indeed, to such an extent that, listening to this recording, one is inevitably struck with the truly distasteful realization that one is privy to Bush's act of masturbation, though, of course, the only thing actually being stroked here is Trump's ego. 

In a previous story about this, the Times reported that Billy Bush, who is now 44 years old, issued a statement which reads, in part, "It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago — I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.”  But later in the recording, as the two men are disembarking from the bus in which this conversation took place and being greeted by the actor Arianne Zucker, Bush can be heard pressuring her into hugging Trump and then himself. That is not "playing along," and he's right: the fact that this happened 11 years ago, when he was 33 - a grown man - is no excuse. One does not hug someone one is meeting in one's professional capacity as a reporter or as anything else.

To those fortunate enough not to know from firsthand experience how sexual abuse occurs, it may come as a surprise to learn that it often disguises itself as friendly, supplicating, and innocuous, rather than overtly aggressive or threatening. That is one of the ways in which sexual abuse is at once pernicious and successful.  And that is precisely why victims often feel ashamed and conflicted. People (and I would argue women, more so than men) are socialized to respond welcomingly to overtly friendly overtures and to be on guard more against hurting other people's feelings than against other people's violations of their own personal space and dignity. It is just that sort of socialized vulnerability that sexual abusers exploit and it is this type of unctuous and underhanded approach that Bush used to pressure Zucker into body-to-body physical contact. He first pressures Zucker on behalf of Trump and, in so doing, assumes the role of procurer, again, acting in his role as Trump's lapdog but also, again, so that Bush could experience the thrill of Trump's physical contact with Zucker vicariously.  This, too, takes on the character of a macho bonding ritual, in which the men share in exploiting the vulnerability of a female victim and putting one over on her.  Trump and Bush both knew, from their previous conversation, that the point of the hug was to gain access to Zucker's body when the rules of social and professional etiquette would normally render it off limits.  For her part, Zucker surely was caught unawares and was forced to perform the quick mental calculation that women in this position so often are forced to perform: "Are they just being friendly? Am I being too sensitive and standoffish?"

Not content with acting as Trump's procurer, Bush then goes on to pressure Zucker into hugging him himself so he could experience his own sexual thrill at her expense.  But make no mistake: the thrill for this sort of person is not merely the physical contact with someone who has been pressured into granting it; it is the thrill of knowing that one has used subterfuge and exploited a vulnerability in order to get it.

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