Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump)

August 3, 2016

Sometimes I wonder when my thoughts about the world won’t have something to do with Donald J. Trump. I’m hoping by the second week of November. But his shameless attack on U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan’s family after their emotional appearance at the Democratic National Congress last week actually inspired me to have a hopeful thought. Seeing Clown Prince Trump claim he’s sacrificed as much as this grieving Gold Star family sent what few military families were still on the Trump Train jumping from the caboose. Trump tried to recover by waving around a Purple Heart that wasn’t his and claiming that he’s wished he’d gone to the Vietnam War (instead of taking all those rich kid deferments).


Trump’s Islamophobic comments aside, the important part of this narrative was Khizr Khan’s passionate assertion that the the Republican nominee was devoid of empathy: empathy for veterans, empathy for the families of troops killed in combat, and empathy for the Vietnam Veteran whose Purple Heart he gladly took and showed off at a campaign rally.  “This person is totally incapable of empathy”, Khan told CNN. “I want his family to counsel him. Teach him some empathy. He will be a better person, but he is a black soul.”

Trump (and his authoritarian followers) aren’t the only people who need a lesson in  empathy. The lack of empathy knows no creed or color. But, unless you are a sociopath, there is hope that it can be learned. I’ve written about it in this blog and I teach it and I’m trying to maintain it when I talk about Trump supporters (which is getting increasingly difficult after the billionaire’s daily assault on core American values).

Here’s where this glimmer of hope from the Trump-Khan “feud” links to rape culture. And here’s where feminists can find unlikely allies. Every man has some female he loves, right? A mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, gaming store clerk. One would assume that they don’t want that female to be sexually assaulted. So if that dude learns that there is a good chance that she will be or already has been (a one in six chance by the most famous study on the topic), he might feel something: anger, maybe guilt that he doesn’t worry about being raped, hopefully concern for the (potential) victim he cares about, and MAYBE concern for other women he doesn’t even know. Empathy.


I wrote about this power in a chapter I published in the 2004 book, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. An emotional connection to a female can allow even the most committed right-wing hate-monger to build empathy towards others, including the people they are supposed to hate. So many hate group members left that world because a female impressed upon them how they are the victims of hate every single day as potential targets of sexual violence.

There’s a second link. I think most men, even the war-loving Trumpists that want to “bomb the shit” out of somebody, understand the complexity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When my dad was in high school he had a teacher who was a “shell-shocked” veteran from World War II. The not-empathetic 1950s kids (you know, when America was “great”) would make the sound of bombs falling to see the poor guy dive for shelter. What a hoot. Now we all have an idea of the ongoing hell many of our troops suffer when they return from war. We might not agree with the war, but we are all in agreement that those people served in conditions that the rest of us could never imagine and we owe it to them to take care of them and be mindful of the triggers of PTSD. Gone are the days of joking about vets who “go all Vietnam” when they get home. Maybe that was a contribution of President Reagan, maybe it was the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, or maybe it was the result of thousands and thousands of vets demanding their stories be heard.

PTSD def

Well, I’ve got some important news for you. Those thousands and thousands of women who have suffered from sexual violence can also suffer from PTSD. This includes a lot of women you know, maybe more than you could ever guess. You think there are a lot of reminders of war in the daily life of a vet? Ask a rape survivor about the daily reminders of sexual violence in America. It doesn’t have to a news report, or a rape scene in Game of Thrones, or a Robin Thicke song. It could just be in a setting or the sound of a man’s voice. I am looking out my window right now and across the bay is Cancun. That word alone surely brings back some nightmarish memories for many women (as I wrote about last year).


I’ve known so many women who have suffered sexual assaults, many when they were very young. Those scars last lifetimes and are heartbreaking. I’ve had female students in my criminology classes burst into tears when I talk about rape statistics. I now give a “trigger warning” before I even bring up the subject. You wouldn’t dream of telling a war vet to “just get over it,” so don’t expect a rape survivor to be on some magical recovery path that the guy who did two tours in Afghanistan isn’t on either. Like war vets, rape victims have a much higher rate of suicide. Both need our open hands, not dismissal.

And there are surely others who suffer from some variation of PTSD, including police officers, abused children, and the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated. These are all people we care about. So if you are a conservative who cares about veterans and police, you can totally care about returning inmates and women living in a culture that has normalized rape. And if you are a liberal, the converse is true! Empathy is a powerful thing! It can even turn Mr. Rambo Republican into a feminist. Let’s care about others besides ourselves. Really care.

The only question left is – Is it possible for Donald J. Trump to learn empathy or is he a sociopath. America’s soul hangs in the balance.


5 thoughts on “Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump)

  1. Before I go on, I like to correct you on an error you might not have known or didn’t catch. Blue Star families are ones who have a loved one currently serving in the Armed Forces. Gold Star families are ones who lost a loved one. So in this case, the Khan family is a Gold Star family.

    There are many things you and I can disagree on. However, you do make a point that I do like to say I do agree with you on is when you talk about PTSD. As a veteran who’s been in the sandbox (many Iraq war veterans call Iraq the sandbox), I know first-hand what PTSD is really like. I may not have the same understanding of PTSD that a rape victim might have, but I do have the same empathy. I’m glad that you give a trigger warning in your class. When I attended school at PSU, I had a class that didn’t give that to me, and I stormed out in tears and fear because I wasn’t given that warning. I did file a report and I’m not sure what the punishment was, but I never saw that teacher again.

    You’re one who likes numbers, so I’m going to give you two sets of numbers. 20 and 50,000. Do you have an idea what those numbers symbolize? 20 (used to be 22) is the number of veterans committing suicide every day because of war trauma. 50,000 is the number of homeless veterans we have in America. Do you know what they both have in common? The Veterans Affairs. The reason why veterans are killing themselves and we have the number of homeless veterans is because the VA pushes people away, puts them on the back burner, or hopes they just go away. I’ve had 5 good friends of mine kill themselves since we deployed in 2004 to Iraq. A couple years ago, KOIN 6 asked me to be involved in an interview about the VA. I do what I do best, speak my mind and the truth so the people can understand that there is a real problem within the VA system.

    You mention at the very beginning about what your world might look like not having to do with Donald Trump. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about both Clinton and Trump. I don’t trust either one of them and I don’t think that either one of them has what it takes to run this country that I love and served for. Be it as it may, one of them is going to be elected President and whoever wins, it’s going to be a long 4 years after that.

    Let me ask you, I know you don’t want Trump to win, but have you thought about what could IF Trump does win the White House? I’m hearing all over the place that many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters aren’t backing her. If they don’t back her, then that could potentially hurt her come November. I ask you that because I want you to know there is a chance Trump could become the 45th President of the United States. Believe me, the thought of either one of them being POTUS terrifies me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for all this, BW. (I got Blue and Gold stars mixed up in my head). The issue of veteran suicides is close to my mind at all times and I’ve talked one through one of those rough moments and the country is a better place because they chose to stick around. There are some important PTSD parallels here. (Rape victims were 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to have attempted suicide (13% Vs 1%).) I think it’s an opportunity to build bridges.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There really is an opportunity for it. The only way to help veterans is take the VA out of the equation. I’m the chairman of the veterans committee Oregon Masonic Grand Lodge and one of our focus is to help the veterans. Sometimes the VA just doesn’t have the resources to help. Usually it’s easier to reach outside the system for help then it is to reach inside the system.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So refreshing to hear these words coming from a male perspective.
    Thank you so much for posting. I’m having a pretty hard time these past few days…


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