The dark secret of sexual assault

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the South Florida Fair Expo Center on October 13, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida Image copyright Getty Images

I really hoped I wouldn't have to write another article about sexual abuse during this presidential campaign.

But the latest allegations against Donald Trump have prompted an important national conversation about the wider abuse of women.

It's a conversation that is long past due, about something too many women have experienced in painful silence, and men for the most part are unaware.

Every woman who has been the victim of unwanted sexual advances - and I don't know very many women who haven't - has strong emotions about this and a lot of unanswered questions.

The political fallout of the New York Times and People Magazine accounts is pretty clear.

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Media captionMichelle Obama and Donald Trump's duelling speeches on women

Trump has vehemently denied the allegations, but women are deserting Donald Trump. His chances of winning the White House are diminishing. His campaign is in disarray, he himself is sounding increasingly apocalyptic.

So let's try instead to examine some of those more awkward abuse questions, because they reveal something rotten in our society.

Why do we have to put up with sexual harassment?

A lot of women, especially women just starting their careers, encounter men who do or say things that are sexually inappropriate.

It's worth noting that Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Dominique Strauss Kahn (to name a few) have been the subjects of multiple allegations, whilst no one has ever accused Barack Obama, George Bush or Ronald Reagan of groping.

Most men would never dream of doing such things, but women quickly learn who not to get stuck with in an empty office.

Men in powerful posts are particularly dangerous because the higher you get, the less people say no to you. That's true everywhere - in business, in politics, in the military, in the civil service, even in journalism.

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Image caption Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves court in 2015

Rachel Crooks says she was 22 when Trump kissed her without consent. She had introduced herself to him because her employer did business with him. When he later asked for her number, she acquiesced - because, the Times says "of Mr Trump's influence over her company."

Occasionally, men too get put in an uncomfortable position by a female colleague - but the scale is incomparable.

What happens to women who complain of abuse?

A colleague from the New York Times described interviewing young women who'd been held by Boko Haram: they would admit to beatings and torture but swore they'd never been raped. The women knew that if they said they'd been raped, they'd never be able to return home.

The United States is not Nigeria, but even here women who talk about sexual abuse are often called liars or shamed publicly.

Mr Trump has done just that today - calling the accusers "horrible people" and implying the People Magazine journalist wasn't attractive enough for him to harass.

He seems furious that anyone would say he put his hand up a stranger's skirt on the plane, or forced his tongue into someone's mouth - calling the Times reporter who wrote the story "a disgusting human being".

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Image caption A shirt at a Trump rally on Wednesday

But how is it different from the activity he described on that Access Hollywood tape?

Abuse happens in private, so it's inevitably a case of she said/he said.

But we do know abuse is a lot more common than people like to think. There are a lot more instances throughout history of women being raped and no one being prosecuted than there are of women falsely claiming rape and a man suffering the legal consequences.

The balance is overwhelmingly stacked against women.

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Why do women carry the shame?

Mr Trump said that if he had indeed assaulted Jessica Leeds more than three decades ago, she would have come forward with her story much earlier.

She says that at the time, it was just the cost of being a woman in business.

"We accepted it for years," she told the Times. "We were taught it was our fault."

Now 74, Ms Leeds says it was only Mr Trump's flat denial of his actions at the second presidential debate that prompted her to go public.

Some women do keep abuse quiet for a long time because it is humiliating. Women who have been assaulted are often asked, why didn't you just say no?

But that's just a way of blaming the victim and transferring the guilt from the abuser to the abused. The only shame here belongs to the men.

It looks like we are going to spend the final three weeks of the US presidential election scraping round in the sordid gutter of sexual misbehaviour. What's abuse, what's not, whose history is worse - it's all going to get an airing.

But maybe out of this miserable political campaign, we can try to do something useful. We can shine a light on the dark secret of sexual assault.