The videotape of Trump describing his conquests to Billy Bush came out, and I felt uneasy. I didn’t know why, not then. No surprise Trump had hit on a married woman, no surprise when he used lewd language. On Facebook, many women (and men, but the women caught my attention) said, “this is locker-room talk,” “men talk like this, but don’t mean anything by it,” and “he didn’t do anything, he was just talking.” My unease grew.
I tried to shrug it off, but not until this morning, when I woke from a series of nightmares, did I understand why this smarmy video bothered me so much.
It was Trump’s knowledge that “when you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p***y. You can do anything.” That was it. That power that is not related to love or play, but to violence, to assault. To abuse of power. To getting away with assault. Having it condoned by our culture.
It’s the same male privilege that Brock Turner took when he raped a woman behind a dumpster, then blamed her. Trump’s behavior is not new. It is how men, still today, prove their power over women. And it is how other men laugh with them, encourage them, admire them for this behavior. Listen to Billy Bush fawning over Trump’s lewd comments and you’ll hear it. (No link. You can find it easily enough.)
And I remembered a day in my life when my idea of men changed, and my idea of how women support abuse of power began. I was 21, out of college, working in my first grown-up job in Washington, D.C. I was wearing a suit with a mini-skirt, tame by today’s standards, but above the knee. There was a senior vice president that all the women knew about. He was married, but, we warned each other, “had hands.” The younger women avoided being alone with him. Most of the women I knew were afraid of him.
One day, while I was making copies, the copier jammed. I knew how to open all the doors and check all the troublesome points, so I bent over the machine, searching for the stray piece of jamming paper. The SVP came in and asked what I was doing. Not looking up, I said I was clearing a jam, and if he left his papers, I’d copy them for him. There was silence and I thought he might have left. I found the paper piece, and as I reached for it, he grabbed me from behind, his hand snaking up under my skirt and between my legs. Had I not been wearing pantyhose (required for work in those days), his fingers would have been inside me. I jumped and faced him and he winked and said, “That’s a real short skirt, but on you . . .” and then slowly licked his lips. I grabbed my copies and left him standing in the room. I managed to reach the bathroom before the mix of outrage, shame, and anger hit. It took me 20 minutes before I could leave the safety of the stall.
I sat at my desk, shaking, for the next quarter hour. Then I got up, made sure I appeared composed, and went to human resources. I told the woman head of HR what had happened. I expected her to be horrified. I expected her to protect me. I expected support from another woman. None of those happened. By the next day, before lunch, I was out on the street, unemployed. The reason? The head of HR blamed me for the senior VP’s behavior. My skirt had been too short. I must have flirted with the senior VP. He had a distinguished military career. I was a nobody. Classic example of support of abuse of power. The worst part of the story was that I believed her. It must have been my fault. This was a big employer, and who was I to think the system was flawed? At the time, I had no idea this was about power and the abuse of power. The behavior was possible because the man would not be punished for it.
That wasn’t the only time in my working life something similar happened, it was just the first. It took me years to figure out that some men will abuse if they can get away with it. Some women will agree with them, often out of fear or their own anger. Their excuse was simple: this behavior was “normal,” it was the adult version of “boys will be boys.” I never believed it.
Boys who were given a wink and a nod become abusers. Other men, who may not directly be involved, but are close to power, become the judges who give slaps on the wrist, or shorten sentences for abusers. Entertainment outlets laugh and admiringly gush at abusive behavior when the abuser gets away with it. No man will turn in a fellow abuser.
Abuse is not normal. It is not harmless. Until we bring up our sons differently, until every woman refuses to accept this bad behavior, it’s easy for men to move from condoned talk to condoned action.
I rarely talked about the incident. There didn’t seem to be a good place to bring it up. I was never one of the cool kids, so I began to think this was simply what happened to the smart, geeky girls when they grew up.
This morning, I read an article in the Arizona Republic by Karina Bland. She mentioned the Canadian author Kelly Oxford who asked her Twitter feed to share the first time they were abused. The first time. Think about that before you read that Oxford’s Twitter feed was filled with answers, “I was 9 years old,” “I was 11 years old,” “I was 12.” She has hashtagged the topic #notokay. It’s not. And it wasn’t all those years ago, either. Grabbing a girl is not locker talk, not anything accept a grab of power with the expectation of support. From other men. From silent women.
We, as women, should not allow this. Not for one more day, not for another generation of sons. It’s #notokay.
Note: You are free to comment on this post. I am free to delete any smarmy, unfair, or cruel remarks. And I will.
–-Quinn McDonald is studying to become a poetry therapist. There is much to heal in the world.