When I was 13 and in my first month of high school, a friend asked to talk to me privately at a party. Once we were alone, he snaked his hand down my shirt and groped me, his hot breath unwelcome on my neck, his erection pressed against my leg.
I froze, confused and queasy, and eventually regained my composure enough to quietly ask to go back into the room with everyone else. The next Monday, he told everyone at school that we had “hooked up.” I denied it -– in my mind, a confusing misunderstanding had happened that made my heart race and left a pit in my stomach, but I hadn’t participated in anything.
No one believed me.
At the time we were embroiled in the particularly dissonant gender politics of the 90s, and none of us had even a dim idea of what consent meant. Unwelcome touching didn’t register in a paradigm where there was only rape and not rape. I spent the rest of high school fielding harassment from his friends for being “a slut” and “a liar,” while he ascended socially on the back of my humiliation and on the near guarantee of my silence.
In one way, what happened sounds so small. One child grabbed another child’s body, high school drama ensued. But even at our young age, the gender dynamics were a rote, well-worn track. I learned that a boy’s word was considered better than my own. I learned that the specter of being a liar was somehow more damning than the specter of being a predator; that boys would always defend another boy, but girls wouldn’t necessarily defend another girl.
“I learned that the specter of being a liar was somehow more damning than the specter of being a predator.”
The act of being touched did not traumatize me, unpleasant as it was. But the way our shared community organized around the guy who did it is a legacy I live with. And it took me 20 years ― until this election cycle, reading through thousands of women recounting their sexual assaults on Twitter ― to realize it.
This election has me triggered: My palms are clammy, I feel overly alert. There is the distinct acrid bite of cortisol on my breath and tenseness in my muscles. My migraines have come back.
I’ve spent the past week consumed by existential forensics. I wonder: If this hadn’t happened to me, would I still have grown into a woman who assumes she won’t be believed? Would I still have become someone who feels ill at ease in social groups? Was I a mark because of some innate people-pleasing impulse, some fundamental softness?
These are all incremental questions leading up to the big one: Who could I have been if I’d grown up in a culture that saw me as equal and worthy?
“Who could I have been if I’d grown up in a culture that saw me as equal and worthy?”
I’m far from alone on this. The political journalist Ana Marie Cox was brought to tears on MSNBC, recalling her own assault as Lawrence O’Donnell read the latest allegations against Donald Trump. We’ve all been groped or worse. Yes, all.
In response to this outpouring of despair, many kind, feminist men have assured us that Trump’s violent language, the “locker room talk,” is not the norm in all-male spaces. I appreciate that, but it’s predicated on an incomplete understanding of what’s so upsetting.
The most horrifying part of Trump’s leaked video happens at the end. Arianne Zucker, a woman gamely doing her job and believing herself to be a full person, interacts with a polite Donald Trump and a playful Billy Bush. She is completely unaware of the coded communication between the two when Bush asks her for a hug.
This is the major force of rape culture: Not the moment of violence, but the use of your body as a cheap stepping ladder. It isn’t just Trump, who grabs your pussy ― an ugly, straightforward thing ― it’s Billy Bush, who offers your pussy to his friend in whispers, making the world unsafe in ways you can sense, but cannot see.
Most locker rooms don’t have a Donald Trump, but they are full of Billy Bushes -– men who benefit from the culture Trump creates, who use a series of gendered advantages to get ahead without any sense of consequence or guilt. I bet the boys who harassed me over my assault are now men who don’t remember.
Unless we can see this as its own violence, we’re doomed to leave intact the cultural forces that make young girls wonder if they have their own stories straight, that make young boys feel sure they can “do anything” and get away with it.