I write this in the wake of the release of Donald Trump’s vulgar statements caught on tape. For me, it is the proverbial straw that has broken my back. For decades I have been silent about these events in my life, but anger has gotten the better of me and I will speak now.
I was 15 when my 18 year-old boyfriend of six months (a long-time trusted friend of the family) took me from the prom to a hotel room he had secured earlier that day. I was younger than my years, unworldly, inexperienced, virginal. Within minutes he was out of his tuxedo whereupon he boldly produced a condom and a well-rehearsed speech. That I would comply was his absolute expectation. If not for the heroic entrance of my brother, I shudder to imagine how my childhood might have come to an abrupt end. I was not prepared for that moment. Perhaps a 15 year-old has no business being out on a date, even if it was with someone her family had known forever. In any case, he broke up with me that night because I would “not put out.”
I was 17 when I was nearly raped in the back of the station wagon that belonged to the family of my date, a boy from school. He was a wrestler, an all-state wrestler. He easily overpowered me. His aggression caught me off guard. Ours had not been a promiscuous relationship and he was going to change that. He was impervious to no. He barreled right through my protests. My status as a good girl angered him, emboldened him, made him feel as though he was entitled to me. It took all the physical strength I had, plus a few fingernails, to escape him. I ran home in the dark and never said a word about it to anyone.
I was 18 when I took a job as a night janitor in the university sports complex. Working evenings, I figured, would not disrupt my full schedule of college classes. I didn’t mind the solitary work, mopping floors throughout the complex, didn’t mind that the building was all but empty, that is until my manager trapped me in the utility closet and forced himself on me. I escaped that guy, too, but not before he chased me (literally) out of the building screaming all the while: “You can’t do shit about it. My uncle runs this place.”
I was 19 when I agreed to go out on a date with a professional chef employed at the same seasonal hotel where I worked. Less than an hour after our dinner at one of the finer restaurants on the island, he lurched at me on the stoop outside the door of my apartment. He attempted to force me inside. His lips, his hands, were all over me as I struggled to disengage. I will never forget his words: “You owe me.” And his parting word: “Slut!”
It happened again when I was 20, different man, same actions, same words, except now I was labeled a tease. Only a tease would allow a guy to take her out for dinner then not give up the goods that are owed back as repayment. I walked home in the dark, a long way home alone, because he refused to drive me. If you know me, you would know I am no tease. At the heart of it some gents feel entitled.
I was 21 when I took a job as a copy-writer at a small marketing company in the town where I was going to college. I was there because I needed the income to support my education. I was there because I wanted to populate my resume with professional work experience. One day I was summoned through the little speaker that was on my desk. Out of it came the voice of the owner of the company: “Lora, can you please come into my office and take “DICtation?” Yes, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Being the good worker-bee I was, I grabbed a notebook and pen and proceeded into his office, because that’s what we women do, we ignore and bear it. With inexplicable giddiness, he unveiled his newest furniture acquisition, positioned in the middle of the room: an examination table right out of an OB/GYN’s office, complete with stirrups extending from one end. “Please, hop up on that table. Put your feet in the stirrups. I am going to give you my DICtation.” Then he closed his office door. Scary.
Later that same year I graduated and accepted my first professional position as a marketing specialist for a computer manufacturer. My superior was a man in his 40’s, who under the guise of mentoring me attempted to establish a sexual relationship. You would think that given my previous encounters, I would have learned how to negotiate unwanted advances. You would think…but, he was the vice president of the company. He was relentless and I was intimidated. He made me feel cornered. I left the position after just a few months.
In the intervening years I left the United States to go live in a truly male-dominated culture, an Arab culture. I have written extensively about this in my book (sorry if this appears to be a shameless plug). Suffice it to say, I’ve spent years considering the countless incidents of groping that I encountered there, all within the context of a culture very different from my own. I do not excuse the behavior one bit as I found it as troubling as it was rampant. Whether here or there, it is culture which gives rise to and implicitly supports pervasive behaviors or it does the opposite, condemn them. Neither country does the latter.
I was 27, living back in the United States and working for the federal government when a colleague grilled me about the sexual orientation of my co-workers and of my significant other. His speech was explicit and unyielding despite my repeated attempts over several days to redirect his attention to the fiscal budget we were tasked with creating. I am, to this day, grateful that my superior—a man—took swift action to remove this person from the ranks of working with me. He did not lose his job. He did not lose his position. He was not sanctioned. In fact, there were no repercussions for him, whatsoever.
And finally, the worst incident, this one by a complete stranger. This one is buried in a deep irretrievable place. This one I will take to my grave, because it is so heinous I cannot bring myself to tell it. Then I hear about the college kid who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and the ensuing campaign to paint him a wayward but good boy with oh-so-much-promise. Zero consequences. Sickening. And then I hear our Presidential candidate brag about grabbing women by the pussy. Zero consequences. Sickening.
To be clear, I have always been inclined to believe that most men do not behave this way. Yet the behavior is pernicious in our society, is pervasive. When Trump says it is locker room talk, when (worse) people defend him, when (even worse) women defend him, what I hear is ‘you should accept it for what it is: the natural order of things.’ Unacceptable. There is nothing natural about unchecked speech against women or unchecked assault wrapped in the cloak of men being men. This is not okay. And frankly, I’ve had enough.
I am no beauty queen. I am not a woman who oozes sexual energy. I am not a woman without street smarts (those early days excepted). Yet look at the bevy of assaults that have come my way. My experience is not unique. Witness the women who have stepped forward in protest of Trump’s words. Ask just about every woman you know, and she will have a ready example of her own.
The saddest aspect vis-à-vis my long list of confrontations is that I did not discuss most of them—I absorbed them. I remained silent. I never informed my parents of the assaults during high school or those afterward because I was embarrassed, ashamed, and on some level believed I should have been able to prevent them from happening. I’m done with that. I’m done with owning all of it. We shouldn’t be a society that has to train our girls to absorb the onslaught; to accept it as part of being female. We should do better. Brothers of sisters, fathers of daughters, sons of mothers, I look to you. I think the change begins with you. First, please do no harm.
This is the reality into which I send my daughter, who I hope will be more equipped than I was, much more prepared to deflect assaults that are sure to come her way. It is one of the reasons she studies Krav Maga. It is why we have frank conversations about what is and what is not acceptable. It is why I encourage her strong voice. It is why in the midst of our raging debates—hers and mine—I smile inside and think to myself ‘yes, fight…stand up and fight.’ Preparing her for a world of men that disrespects her while trying to teach her to respect herself is clearly a challenge that for the ages shall remain.
We had better acknowledge out loud that girls need to be on the defensive from a very young age and they should be prepared to maintain these defenses for decades, because as this past weekend proves, there is a world of difference between an apology and justification. Our girls are at risk from a population of men that think sexual assault is okay.