“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” – Margaret Atwood
It isn’t just the words.
The words are bad. The words are cringe-worthy. The words are – sadly – not surprising or unfamiliar. But it isn’t just the language that Donald Trump uses on the now-infamous 11-year-old tape. It isn’t just the servile giggling of Billy Bush, so eager to join in. It isn’t just the casual denigration of women as an assemblage of ratable parts and erection-stimulators.
It’s the entitlement. It’s the overt assumption of male ownership of any female, and the celebration of the same.
“When you’re a Star, you can do anything,” Donald Trump says.
“Whatever you want,” Billy Bush parrots, and titters.
“Grab ‘em by the pussy,” Trump elaborates.
The video is an embarrassment: two “grown” men, one a year shy of 60, huddled together and stroking each other’s misogynistic tendencies, peeking out the window of the bus to evaluate approaching women as worthy of forced sexual contact.
It appears to have shocked a lot of men that any man would behave this way.
Men I know and respect don’t get it. Men I love, who I know love me, think that this language and the behavior it describes, this “Locker Room Talk,” is uncommon, an anomaly.
They look to their close friends and shrug. My buddies don’t talk like that, they insist.
They don’t know what all women know. I should amend that: what all women have learned.
You [men] are not our protectors…. If you were, who would there be to protect us from? Mary Edwards Walker
I recently had a conversation with a man who is sensitive, and loving, and good. But he laughed off the notion of anyone taking Donald Trump’s sexist comments seriously. And when I started to explain that many women – most women – have experienced that very behavior, he expressed disbelief that fellow members of his gender would behave that way. He’d never witnessed it, he said.
Well perhaps you haven’t, I said, but many women have. Just because these guys aren’t doing it in front of you doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And the truth is, they are doing the most common and – in the range of where it can go – benign form of it in front of you: catcalling, whistling, and “ranking” behaviors are everyday events in a woman’s life that men brush off as “compliments.” The more aggressive forms – the kind Donald Trump describes – men don’t often do in front of other men. Well, not if they think the woman is with that other man. Because when a woman is with a man, other men BEHAVE. Because she’s with someone, she’s claimed. But alone, or with other women – fair game.
I had a hard time convincing my friend that women’s experience in the world is quite different than his. It’s like the guys who don’t think street harassment is a big deal, or that sexual abuse and assault doesn’t take place every minute, or that online misogynistic trolling is prolific simply because they haven’t witnessed it take place (or been subjected to it).
I tried to explain what women experience daily. We never escape it: working, walking, shopping; at the gym, at the grocery store, or sitting quietly in a coffee shop reading a book; riding the bus or out for the night with friends. Anywhere we go, women can be subjected to an array of male attention that ranges from anonymous shouts and uncomfortable leering to increased intrusion on our personal space all the way to Jesus-Fucking-God-this-guy-might-kill-me.
My friend’s tone accused me of hyperbole.
“Guys don’t talk like that. If anyone I knew behaved that way, he would be shunned by the rest of us,” my friend said.
I asked if he would go further and confront a man for his language or behavior.
My friend felt sure he wouldn’t need to; that the group’s quiet dismay was enough.
I’m afraid I got a bit strident, likening this “silent treatment” to acceptance in the same way that non-confrontation of racist, homophobic, or xenophobic language is a tacit endorsement.
“You act like this shit happens all the time,” he said.
His dismissive shrug was the last straw.
“IT DOES,” I said. Or shouted. Yes, I probably shouted.
Every Woman Knows
“If everyone could just see what I was seeing right now. Read the tweets being sent to me every second. If the ticker tape at the bottom of the TV were the stories women have been sending me, at the rate I have been sent them… it would feel like war.” – Kelly Oxford
I told my friend about the inundation of Kelly Oxford’s twitter feed: under #notokay, she shared her story of the first time she was subject to the type of sexual assault that Donald Trump and Billy Bush celebrated (she was twelve). Then she asked women to share their story; at hour 14 she was still getting over 50 stories a minute, piling up into hundreds of thousands of stories relating harassment, assault, intimidation, and objectification. By the end of the next day, she had a million stories in 140 characters that sought to describe just the first incident (out of the many incidents in a woman’s life).
My friend was appalled, as he should be, as anyone should be to hear a report of such widespread grotesque behavior. I also knew he wanted very much to change the subject. He was embarrassed that he’d been so dismissive of my claim but it was also apparent that he really would prefer not to know this much about the world and women’s daily struggle in it. He was intensely uncomfortable. That much was clear from his dismay as he held his hands up, palms out as if to show he had no weapon or ungentlemanly intent, and chanted, “Ok, Ok, I was wrong, I’m stupid.”
“There’s a difference between ignorance and stupidity,” I said.
He waved his hands again. “Whatever. Okay. I’m wrong.”
He was feeling personally attacked for the actions of people who shared his gender and had shut down – and shut me out.
This left me feeling somehow like I’d beaten him up a little with so much truth. It didn’t occur to me to point out that women suffer such attacks because of their gender; we don’t get to avoid that reality so why should he get to avoid a conversation?
We were on our way to suffer the inevitable heartbreak of a Texas Rangers post-season game. Deflated, I let it go. I doubted he was able, just then, to take on the role of an advocate for women and confront his fellow men whenever misogynistic comments or behavior were on display around him.
So we watched the game. The Rangers lost.
The next day I watched the video of the second Presidential Debate, where Donald Trump again minimized his words and (Thank You, Anderson Cooper) claimed he’d never engaged in the behavior those words described. Then, in true “Alpha Male” form, Trump tried to physically intimidate Hillary Clinton throughout the event by stalking her onstage.
Trump’s behavior at the debate was disturbing and very familiar. Any woman who has been followed too closely recognized it for what it was: a threat (I realized that the debate, this entire election campaign, was starting to feel like it needed a Trigger Warning).
There, on display, was the very thing I’d been trying to explain to my friend about men and women and misogyny and entitlement. First, Trump attempted to humiliate Hillary with a demeaning pre-debate press conference where he lined up three women who claimed sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton – at least one of whom he had previously labeled a “loser” but trotted out now in an overt attempt to rattle his opponent. This will backfire, I thought; most people feel sympathy for the betrayed spouse, and Trump has his own history of marital infidelities and (of course) women who have leveled charges ranging from sexual harassment to rape. And I don’t say this to diminish the accusations of those women against Bill Clinton, I’m merely pointing to the hypocrisy in Trump’s attempt at misdirection and his apparently bottomless cruelty in wielding people as weapons).
But it was during the debate, while Hillary remained poised and cool and Trump indulged in bluster and lies and interruptions, that I found myself so frustrated by the status quo: Trump whined and raged, charging bias by claiming it was “three against one,” while Hillary did not show anger, even when Trump threatened her with jail if he was elected. He could be angry and not be accused of being unpresidential; she could not be angry without being accused of being unstable. Because, you know…women.
I saw Hillary Clinton smile away Trump’s insults and barbs and slanders, the way women so often do. She didn’t confront; she didn’t attack. She was grace under pressure, to be sure. But Trump didn’t light his tie on fire or shit his own pants so pundits would likely say he did well, and his campaign would spin it as a victory.
It left me depressed. And a little jittery.
Every Woman Knows
I did not share my own “first” story with my friend (the caveat is that it was my first “stranger” assault). Perhaps I should have forced him to listen to the testament of someone he cares about. Because he knows my past, he knows of the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of my stepfather – something that impacts me to this day. But he doesn’t know how many times over the course of my life I’ve been catcalled and grabbed at and pressed against, exposed to and masturbated at, threatened and followed – because I don’t know. I’ve lost count.
He knows of a few incidents and so he thinks the incidents are few.
And I think that is probably true for most men. And a big part of the problem. The bigger part is when men don’t want to acknowledge it. My friend didn’t want to know the truth. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe me. But it made him uncomfortable.
I got a little angry when I saw a similar sentiment on Kelly Oxford’s feed.
@kellyoxford I can’t look at it because I know you’re absolutely correct, and I can’t bear to confront the reality that fact right now. 😦
I should have offered a similar confrontation to my friend when he shied away from the reality that women deal with this All The Time. Our plans for the day or the evening aren’t taken into consideration. Our frame of mind and our ability to handle ugly truths aren’t evaluated. “We” never even enter into the equation when we’re reduced to walking body parts, ranked one-to-ten.
We don’t have the luxury of ignoring painful reality; we’re in the middle of it. It’s happening to us. Instead, we must decide how to respond: ignore or confront? Dismiss it with a forgiving smile or try to explain why the behavior is offensive? Laugh and appear pleased at the “attention” or go ballistic, scream and hurl insults, or swats, or kicks? Most of us simply turn away from gross, intrusive, denigrating behavior and swallow our outrage and our disgust along with our pride. Because we know, at our core, that our lives might depend on it. So we take “The Path of Least Precariousness.
When I was fourteen, a man crossed the street so he could grab my crotch as he passed me. He made a sucking sound through his teeth as he did it.
He was in his mid-to-late twenties, possibly even into his early thirties, and he was very big. I was terrified.
It didn’t physically hurt: it was a quick, darting grab, his fingers swatting the area as I instinctively pulled away. But it wasn’t about the physical damage as much as the mental and emotional assault. I was on a city street. It was daylight, late afternoon, and I was heading home from school. There were cars passing, there were other people around, and yet this man moved with impunity. He targeted me, looked both ways to ensure his own safety before he crossed the street, and approached with intent to assault a young girl.
The brief contact left me feeling soiled and ashamed. I was fully clothed but felt completely exposed, like every element was on display. I clutched my schoolbooks to my chest and hunched my shoulders and hurried away, afraid, intrinsically, that he would do more – because he could have done more. That was the lesson: that he, as a man, was entitled to touch me, a fourteen-year-old girl who just happened to be on the same street that day. He continued walking and I felt simultaneously relieved and embarrassed. I hoped that maybe he would get hit by a car. Unconsciously, I knew that was the limit of my power.
That forced attention and the potential for sexual assault rooted in male entitlement is a burden that all women – and girls – experience every day, and something we carry with us every day of our lives.
We’ve all been “Trumped” – by a friend, a boss, a coworker, a stranger, a random group of men. We’ve been groped or fondled or kissed. We’ve been stalked and harassed. We’ve been on the receiving end of unwarranted appraisals of our body and lewd suggestions as to what could be done with it. We’ve had our appearance and our clothes evaluated out loud and been told to smile (which might seem benign but it’s another expression of entitlement that says women should present a pleasing image to men). It’s happened in public, in private, at work, at the grocery store, on public transportation (frequently), at the gym, at the park, in the movie theater, at the bar: there is nowhere women go where they are not vulnerable to the ultimate expression of male entitlement: sexual assault.
Because let’s be clear: that is what Donald Trump was describing and celebrating.
It is what women heard and why women (even staunch Conservative and Christian women who have, out of loyalty to party and faith, strapped themselves their GOP nominee) are so outraged.
Every woman you know has a Trump Tale: whether it was humiliation or belittlement, unwanted attention that left them uncomfortable or sexual harassment/assault that overtly violated them, women recognized exactly what Donald Trump was talking about on that tape. And they shuddered to think of him with any real power in this world.
Make It Awkward
I failed with my friend the other night. He was uncomfortable and so I let the issue drop (never mind that women have been uncomfortable because of this issue for a very long time).
I failed to #MakeItAwkward and to impress upon him that, going forward, he should do the same. The quiet shunning of your group’s sexist/misogynistic asshole isn’t enough. ‘Cause it ain’t working. Silence is a tacit agreement with the status quo. You have to pick a side. Just like #BlackLivesMatter needs the non-black population of this country to recognize and speak out against police brutality and systemic racism, women need men to be advocates and speak out against what Donald Trump wants to dismiss as “Locker Room Talk.”
With BLM, this isn’t about Black People vs. Police, it’s about Right vs. Wrong. The same is true here: this isn’t simply a “woman’s issue” but one of morality.
And that means standing up for women when, with words or actions, men harass and demean them in front of you. It means risking your own comfortable relationships to call “foul” what is truly foul.
And if, as a man, you find yourself afraid of what confronting another man’s behavior might cost you, particularly in terms of your personal safety, well…welcome to a woman’s daily life.