Politicization of Sexual Misconduct as Symbolic Annihilation: An Analysis of News Media Coverage of the 2016 “Rape Election”

  • Christopher J. SchneiderEmail author
  • Stacey Hannem
Original Paper


Sixteen months after Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States a Washington Post headline read: “2016 is the rape election.” This paper examines the evolution of the discourse of sexual misconduct in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Using qualitative media analysis as our method, we examined coverage in the Washington Post and New York Times. Our analysis provides insight into the ways in which the sexual misconduct allegations against Trump were framed in partisan terms and as, foremost, a political issue; we refer to this as the politicization of sexual misconduct. We argue that the politicization of sexual misconduct operates as a form of symbolic annihilation to trivialize and omit victims’ experiences in media coverage and we draw on empirical data to identify four rhetorical processes that comprise the politicization of sexual misconduct: (1) focus on the character of the accused (rather than harm to victims); (2) comparing severity of allegations relative to other politicians; (3) leveraging victim stories for political gain; and (4) dismissal of allegations as politically motivated lies. Ironically, however, our findings also reveal that coverage of sexual misconduct throughout the 2016 campaign provided an unforeseen context for dozens of women to publicly narrate their own stories—in an attempt to be heard—the consequences of which, we suggest, set the conditions for a wave of women coming forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men.


Sexual misconduct Donald J. Trump 2016 Election Media analysis Politics Politicization Symbolic annihilation Victimization 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brandon UniversityBrandonCanada
  2. 2.Wilfrid Laurier UniversityBrantfordCanada

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