When I was in my twenties, I was on a flight home to Phoenix from Portland. I was in the middle seat, next to a guy about my age. Then a man in his 40s or 50s got on board and took the aisle. He smelled like alcohol when he got on the plane. The flight attendants refused to serve him more drinks after his first couple. It was a two-and-a-half hour flight, and throughout the flight he had his hands on me, tried to sleep on me, and called me sweetie.
I didn’t know what to do. The logistics seemed overwhelming. How would I tell the flight attendants? I would have to get out of my seat and walk over him, to start. Then they would have to find me a new seat, and it was a full flight. And what about my stuff—how would I get it back from under the seat in front of me? And how would I talk about this to my new seatmates? The logistics of getting out of the situation left me paralyzed….
If women hadn’t started coming forward accusing Donald Trump of inappropriate sexual touching and assault, I would have probably remained largely uninterested in Election 2016.
Honestly, I’m in it for the Saturday Night Live parodies. I missed the first presidential debate, but decided I had to watch the second so that I would get all the references in the following week’s SNL sketch.
I vote Democrat. Sometimes I vote Republican. I have opinions. (If you know me, you know I have opinions.)
But I don’t have the energy or the blood-pressure capacity to remain all riled up for months at a time. I find the commentary on both the right and the left apocalyptic. Absolutes are thrown around like leaves in our current Northwest storm (can we call it a nor’wester?).
But then things got sexual, and women started coming forward with allegations. I became interested, less in terms of Donald Trump, per se, but in terms of our culture of silence around sexual assault and our eagerness to dismiss and blame victims. Donald Trump isn’t the only man-in-the-spotlight to become a living caricature of the victim/alleged-assailant dynamic, but he’s here now, and we have a lot to learn.
Only between two and ten percent of sexual assault allegations are false, according to aggregated research reported by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and about 63% of sexual assaults go unreported. (To see the data, click here.)
I heard the “locker room talk” explanation.
Then as allegations kept appearing, friends started coming forward on Facebook, sharing their own stories of sexual harassment and assault, challenging our current culture of complacency and skepticism.
My friend Jenn shared, “I had a grown man say ‘Nice tits’ to me as he was leaving a restaurant I was entering. Our culture groomed him to believe that I would find this complimentary.” Jenn is also the survivor of two sexual assaults. My friend Steph said that in addition to three sexual assaults, she’s been the victim of a stream of harassment over the years because of her breasts.
Jenn and Steph are strong, confident women. But in the face of harassment and assault, women are often left shocked and silent. Jenn says, “I remember not realizing I had been treated poorly until I thought about it later. Being objectified and sexualized is just too normal to catch immediately.”
Although we know the statistics that millions of women will be victims of sexual assault, we rarely come in contact with the humanizing, everyday stories. Hearing my friends speak up was like a breath of fresh air, changing sexual assault from rhetoric into lived experience. When it’s rhetoric, the power goes away. When it’s real, we can imagine our friends and sisters and daughters.
My friend Ruth gave me permission to share this story:
When I was in high school I was grabbed by a boy without my consent.
He was a friend I had known for years. We were hanging out, as we often did, and talking about seeing a movie. The only difference between that day and a dozen like it were that this day he had another friend there, a skeezy guy I had never met. From the moment I arrived, he made lewd comments about me, which my friend laughed at. It was dehumanizing and made me angry. When he suggested my friend “get himself out of the friend zone by force,” I left and excused myself to go to the bathroom. I had been there less than 30 minutes.
I intended to leave as soon as I came out. I was furious, both at that boy and at my friend for refusing to defend me. My friend called my name from a room to the side, and I turned, planning to angrily chew him out. Before I said a word, my friend, who was much larger than me, pushed me down and climbed on top of me. He first kissed, then groped me.
My anger turned to terror. I had never had a romantic relationship of any kind with this boy. I was pinned down, unable to move or speak. I believed he was about to rape me.
After a minute my friend stood up, grinning. He started to talk, but before he could say anything, I said, “I’m going home.” And left. I felt violated and sick. I blamed myself. What had I done to make him think that was okay?
He showed up at my parents’ house later to see if I still wanted to see the movie. I had had a few hours to recover at that point and calmly told him I never wanted to see or speak to him again. I never did, although over the years I heard from other friends about things he’d said about me: that he had slept with me, that I was a slut, that I was a lesbian. I actually found this gossip refreshing–it told me that I was living my life happily without giving him another thought, but he was dwelling on me.
I’ve never talked about what happened publicly. I’ve hardly talked about it privately.
Why didn’t Ruth come forward before? To corroborate why women stay silent, you can pop over to The Political Insider to see each Trump allegation debunked based on speculation, hearsay, parallels to song lyrics, and opinion. A quick search of comments in most any sexual assault allegation post on the Internet will find you plenty of “I would have punched him, so she was either a coward or she liked it,” and a slew of other insults levied at the alleged victim. It’s no wonder women stay silent.
[A]fter one of our presidential candidates said the degrading things he said… I felt called to say something. I wonder how many women Trump has made feel as sick and shamed as I felt? …
But that’s not the real problem. You see, I’m 100% sure that what happened to me would never have happened if the skeezy friend hadn’t been there dehumanizing me and making the suggestions he made. Donald Trump just became that skeezy friend for every boy and man in America who heard that tape.
She’s right. What we hear and see from others is at the heart of what perpetrates our culture of silent objectification and victimization of women. Jenn had some thoughts on this; as a teacher, she sees her teenage students interact everyday. “I have watched the way the girls are spoken to and treated by their male peers…. Girls are socialized to believe that they must simply deal with boys’ lewd comments and behavior. Boys are socialized to think it’s funny to speak to and treat girls this way.” Our culture of “locker room talk” encourages women to be silent and accept sexist treatment, especially if it isn’t “that bad.” As Scott Baio said, women who were offended by Trump’s remarks should “grow up.”
Jessica Leeds, the woman who came out this week and accused Donald Trump of sexually assaulting her in first class on a plane back in the 80s said something that resonated with me. She recalled that if Donald Trump hadn’t allegedly tried to put his hand up her skirt—if he’d only been kissing her and going after her breasts—then she might not have hit her breaking point and left for her previous seat in coach.
My situation on the flight from Portland to Phoenix just wasn’t that bad. It’s embarrassing to think that, but as a woman I didn’t have examples I could look to of other women being listened to and supported when something crossed the line.
When the flight was over, the man on the aisle left first. I grabbed a flight attendant and told her what happened. She was apologetic, and got my information. Before I got off the plane I looked back at the twentysomething guy by the window. “Why didn’t you do anything?” I asked him.
Thinking back on the situation over a decade later, I am struck most by that last interaction. Why didn’t you do anything?
I will tell my children this story, so that they have the courage to ask, “Are you okay? Is this guy bothering you? Can I help you?” It would have given me the opportunity to say, “Yes, and I don’t know what to do.”
It’s not up to the victim to be ironclad and outspoken. It’s up to us to stand up for her.
My friend Jenn, besides being a teacher, is a former volunteer for the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault hotline. She’s done crisis calls and gone to the hospital with women who have been assaulted. She says, “Anything I can do to help, I’m here.” If you want her contact information, she gave me permission to give it to readers. Leave a comment.
I encourage you, if you’re willing, to share your own stories here in the comments, via social media, or with friends. I’ll keep the comments closely moderated.
Finally, my friend Steph shared a moving account of one of her sexual assaults, written in the third person, which happened on a study-abroad in Denmark. I have Steph to thank for pointing me to the statistics and where to find reliable sexual assault information (she used to work for Clackamas Women’s Services). I’m going to end with this:
[A] 21 year old woman is standing near the entrance of a club/bar, waiting for her ever-positive friend to retrieve her coat. The last two months at the top of Denmark have been rough. Short days and long nights have made for not only a lack of light in the sky but also in her heart.
But tonight she feels beautiful for the first time in weeks. The sparkles around her eyes match the halter top she’s sporting and her hair is perfect.
Without warning, a young man walks up with two friends, reaches out, and gropes her left breast. Then stands back expectantly as if to say, “Don’t you want me?”
She doesn’t think. Just reacts. And before she knows it her palms are striking his chest to push him away from her.
Then her left hand is cutting, slicing, flying through the air–the backside of her palm meets the space invader’s face with a loud smack.
The Dane’s two friends begin to laugh as if any of this could be laced with mirth. The violated woman moves towards the worm again, but is held back by the gracious, beautiful friend who has reappeared with the jacket.
On the way home the woman fumes. And fumes. And knows she has had a piece of her dignity stolen forever.