(Trigger warning: I discuss my own experiences with sexual assault and harassment, as well as rape culture in general.)
I’ve been wavering back and forth about whether I should post this piece. I’ve had it saved in my drafts section for a week, wondering whether I would be exposing myself to harassment, anger, or, worse, apathy if I posted it. Wondering whether I should just focus on the fashion and style aspects of blogging because, frankly, I might lose traffic or followers for discussing something both so political and so personal. Wondering whether I’d feel safe, even with the anonymity I’ve preserved for myself.
But, one week ago, the Washington Post brought to light a 2005 video featuring a conversation with U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. In the video, Trump alludes to performing acts of sexual harassment and assault. And I, in good conscience, cannot let this go unaddressed in my blog.
In the video, Trump talks about kissing women without regard for their consent or desire (“I just start kissing them. […] Just kiss. Don’t even wait.”) and even states that he can grab women by the genitalia, that he “can do anything” because he is “a star.” The thing is, Trump is describing sexual assault. Stardom does not grant anyone the right to anyone else’s body. Trump has admitted to acts of sexual violence on tape. And, yet, he is still a presidential nominee.
This is not even the first time Trump has spoken in misogynistic terms about women. Watch any video in which he discusses Hillary Clinton. Watch any video in which he discusses any woman. Read all of the articles about women he’s interacted with throughout his life. Look up and read about the child rape case being brought against him (which, as far as I can tell, has not been proven to be a media hoax).
Trump is an anomaly, in many ways, but he is also a symptom of and a mouthpiece for the lessons that American society, explicitly and implicitly, teaches to its citizens.
Sexism still runs rampant in the media, in classrooms, in the workplace, in every waking moment of our existences. The reinforcement of sexism begins at birth with the marketing of pink clothes adorned with phrases like “Pretty like Mommy” for girls and blue clothes adorned with phrases like “Tough Stuff” for boys, which suggest that the most important thing for girls is to be aesthetically pleasing and the most important thing for boys is to be “strong” and inflexible. It is perpetuated in schools with the implementation of sexist dress codes, which suggest that female bodies are inherently sexual, that males are easily distracted and disturbed by the female body, and that females must be afraid and ashamed of “provoking” male attention. It continues into adulthood, with women with full-time jobs, on average, making twenty percent less than their male counterparts, suggesting women are still worth less even though they can and do perform the exact same jobs. It continues into news and entertainment, with mainstream media relentlessly judging famous women’s clothing choices while displaying general nonchalance toward the wardrobes of famous men. Hillary Clinton’s clothing is remarked on every time she makes an appearance; even she is made to reinforce the sexist idea that women must be aesthetically evaluated. When was the last time that Trump’s clothing choices were critiqued by mainstream media?
All of these messages ultimately suggest that women are inferior, and that women are inherently and simply sex objects, made for visual and sexual consumption.
All of these messages perpetuate rape culture.
If you’ve never heard of the term “rape culture,” the Oxford Dictionary definition is “A society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” When a society repeatedly suggests (through the words and actions of powerful figures and mainstream media) that a woman is not worth as much as a man, that society also suggests that a woman’s word is worth less than a man’s. That a woman’s body is worth less than a man’s. That society doubts the accounts of women who fight in court against their rapists and attackers. That society believes that a man’s athletic pursuits and college career are more important than justice for his rape victim. That society allows a man who is so clearly a misogynist, who so clearly believes he has a right to women’s bodies, to run for president.
I reside within that society. And I have been the victim and survivor of attempted rape, twice.
When I confronted the perpetrator of the second attempt, I was told by him that “You wanted it.”
This is rape culture.
Even when I was too young to know the term for it, it was always there.
When I was still in elementary school and riding the subway home, sitting between my mother and my younger brother, a man pulled his penis out right in front of me. My mother told me to avert my eyes; the subway car was crowded and we couldn’t move to another seat. I had to sit there with this man’s weapon of harassment so close to my face for several agonizing stops, until he finally left the car. He seemed so calm, so nonchalant about this act, but even at my young age I knew to be scared.
When I was in middle school, a man followed me home from my school in Park Slope. He masturbated while walking behind me, until I ran inside my house, told my mother someone had been following me, and she stormed outside and chased him away. I was old enough to have a vague understanding of what that man had been doing, but I clearly remember making a choice that day not to think about the implications, because I knew that if I thought about it I would be frightened, and ashamed, and disgusted.
When I was in high school, a teenage boy approached me on the subway and asked me to read his poetry. He then sat down next to me and started stroking my hair, leaning into me. I was both flattered and terrified. I felt as if I was supposed to like his attention but I had not asked for this. He was too close, I was alone, and I didn’t know him.
In my early twenties, a man I had been dating asked me if he could just “stick it in, just a little” when we were lying in his bed. When I tried to tell him I wasn’t ready, before I could even get half of my sentence out he said “I don’t care about your history, let’s just do this.” As if I wouldn’t say no, as if my words and level of desire weren’t relevant, as if entering his bed was consent enough.*
Our society tends to doubt the victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment, to blame her or him. “Did you say no?” “What were you wearing?” “Maybe don’t get so drunk next time.” “Don’t put yourself in that situation.” “Be more careful.” I have heard some men suggest that us women should “start dressing more like men” or “stop walking home alone,” because of course it’s our fault that we are attacked and that we so often receive unwanted attention. It’s so much easier to blame the victim. If it’s the victim’s fault, if she was dressing too “slutty” or partying too hard, then maybe it happened for a reason, and it’s preventable, and as long as the rest of us behave in the “right” way we’ll never have to be victims ourselves.
But what about all of those times I was wearing a puffy oversized jacket and no makeup and I still got catcalled? Should I just walk around wearing a refrigerator box?
When I go out for drinks, I don’t expect or want to be sexually assaulted. When I wear something skin-baring, I don’t do it so I can be ogled or harassed. I have the right to my own body and the freedom to wear what I like, to wear what feels good or makes me feel good. I wear something because it’s comfortable, or it’s hot out, or it’s cold out. I wear what I wear because I, and I alone, determine what is best for my own body.
A couple of months ago, a friend from back in Brooklyn told me that a man had been following her around in her own neighborhood, making kissing noises at her from his car. She tried to file a police report against this stalker, but when the police station receptionist heard her story, he laughed and said “So, he was just being a pervert?”
“Just” being a pervert. Why is it so easy to dismiss an account of someone being sexually harassed? We can be shocked and scared by accounts of abuse, rape, murder, etc., but why are we not shocked and scared when we hear accounts of behaviors that are precursors to sexual violence? If this man already believes that he has the right to continually follow a woman around and verbally solicit her, even when she clearly doesn’t want the attention, how far of a leap is it, really, for this man to also start thinking he has a right to that woman’s body?
Three times in one week. Three times in one week that my friend has been followed and/or harassed in her neighborhood. By three different men. When will this stop?
I am angry, because we should be better than this. I am scared, because my friend and I are women in a world that still deems us less than a man. I am furious and terrified, because a man who believes he has the right to comment on and touch women without their consent may end up running the country that I and my loved ones and so many other women reside in.
Trump is representative of all of the misogynistic, sexist, racist, and xenophobic tendencies that exist within the systems of American society. He is giving voice to all of these impulses that have been here all along. The fact that our society, my society, is racist and sexist can no longer be denied.
The next step must be reform; it must be change. We must teach our children that consent matters, that women are individual human beings worthy of the same rights as everyone else, that feminism means equality for all. We must begin to build a more equal system.
Our sexist society does not just negatively impact women; it negatively impacts men too. Men are often made to feel ashamed when a woman rejects their advances; why? Wouldn’t it be better for men if their self-worth was not tied to their number of sexual partners or their desirability to women? If I do not want to sleep with you, I am not saying no in order to hurt your ego; I am saying no because I simply am not interested. Why tie the ego in?
Feminism is everyone’s fight. When a large segment of the population is oppressed, no one’s life is truly better for it. How can the entirety of a population thrive if half of that population’s bodies and minds are being policed by politicians and the media? How can we make technological, environmental, medical, and scientific advancements if only half of the population is receiving a decent education and equal pay? How can the next generation of humans be happy and healthy if their mothers are not happy and healthy? How can a hetero- or bisexual male be completely fulfilled in his relationship if his female partner is struggling to feel safe and valued in a world that does not provide her with equal rights? How can anyone with a daughter be okay with the status quo for the rest of the girls and women out there? We are all someone’s daughter.
If you are a cisgendered male, you are likely in a position of privilege and power right now. Be an advocate. Use that privilege and be an ally to this cause.
When you hear a woman talking about how she was sexually harassed, do not question her judgment or her experience. Listen and be aware. Be sympathetic. Be angry for her, not at her. When someone makes a joke or comment that is sexist and disregards the experiences and humanity of women, stand up to that person. Make it clear that joking about rape or roofies is not okay. Make it clear that jokes like that, jokes that make light of the reality of many women’s lived experiences, only perpetuate rape culture.
And if you are the one making those jokes, then think about what the men and women around you hear. If you realize that you yourself have been guilty of being sexist, or guilty of discrimination, humbly admit to your mistake. Learn from it. I have been guilty of sexist thoughts before. We are all still learning.
Let us cultivate respect for one another. Let us find self-worth in our skill sets, our kind acts, our ability to be considerate. Let us come together as equals and allies.
If you can, please vote. Please vote for candidates who will fight for our collective humanity, who will regard women as people and not objects, who will treat all of their constituents with respect.
Please cast your vote for equality, not hatred.
❤ S. (a.k.a. AMisplacedPen)
*Note: If I come across as clinical in discussing my experiences, that is a coping mechanism. I adopt this tone because it is easier than letting myself relive the fear and the anger and the absolute terror.
Except I relive those feelings almost every evening. I fill with fear and anxiety every time I walk through a quiet area at night, because I know what can happen. I know that I can be subjected to much worse than what I’ve experienced. After years of therapy, the fear and anxiety have lessened, but they never quite go away. I don’t want this kind of fear to exist anymore, for myself or anyone else. There is enough for humanity to be concerned about.