Like many women did upon hearing Donald Trump’s 2005 sexual abuse comments, I flashed back. I was in my 20s, crammed against scores of buttoned-down morning commuters on a subway escalator when a man grabbed me from behind. Reflexively, I cried out in horror, swatting his arm away from me like I used to swat the golf ball-sized horse flies at my grandmother’s lake house.
As I turned to face him, he looked away, feigning innocence. I frantically scanned the crowd. Is everyone seeing this? They were. All eyes were on me, bearing witness. Then one by one, they looked away.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been groped by a stranger, but this morning stands out in my memory because I felt doubly violated, both by the perpetrator and by the crowd.
As I’ve watched our nation’s dueling narratives on sexual assault this past month, I’ve been reminded of those subway commuters.
On one hand, we saw a flood of athletes slam Trump’s excuse that his lewd comments were “locker room talk,” many tweeting their disavowals under the hashtag #notinmylockerroom. On the other hand, more horrifying details emerged in the Baylor University football team’s rape scandal — demonstrating that sexual abuse can indeed take place in or around locker rooms.
On one hand, First Lady Michelle Obama gave what was arguably this campaign’s most stirring speech yet, in which she noted that “the men that you and I know don’t treat women this way.” On the other hand, when Canadian writer Kelly Oxford invited women to share their stories of sexual assault via Twitter, she received over a million responses in just the first day, at the rate of 50 responses per minute.
In fact, two-thirds of American women report having been sexually harassed on the street, with 41 percent experiencing physical harassment. These incidents are increasingly weighing on women — according to a recent Gallup poll, 34 percent of American women worry about being sexually assaulted, up from 29 percent in 2015.
Can we agree that somebody’s got to know the men behind these acts?
As much as I loved Michelle Obama’s speech, she was wrong when she assumed that women don’t know men who behave like Trump. Sexual predators aren’t just shadowy figures in dark alleyways — some of them happen to be sons in our families, bosses at our jobs, and yes, athletes in our locker rooms.
A college friend of mine recently alluded to as much when she told me she wouldn’t be attending our 20th reunion. “I’m not sure I want to walk into a room smiling with outstretched arms to some of those men,” she explained. Some of those men, after all, are our friends.
As writer Kiese Laymon recently wrote in a piece about Bill Cosby,
There are millions of ways to be sexually violent. Incapacitating partners with Quaaludes and raping them is [only] one way... As vile and monstrous as Bill Cosby might be, I’m more interested in confronting formal and informal violent practices of the nation that created Bill Cosby, Bill Cosby defenders, Bill Cosby accusers and me.
If we really care about eradicating rape culture, we won’t just confront Trump, or Billy Bush. We’ll confront the formal and informal violent practices of the nation that created them. By painting them as monsters, we’re doing the same thing “good white people” often do when they demonize racists instead of confronting their own biases. Deflection feels good, like a solid pat on the back that soothes the ego, but it puts aside the hard work, the “work of justice,” as Laymon calls it.
Doing the work of justice means sitting down with our children, spouses, and colleagues to confront the spectrum of sexual violence on a molecular level. Trump’s comments have prompted me to do just that in my own family, to talk with my daughters about consent, and my husband about how we can get better at handling these topics together. It feels awkward, yes. But necessary.
As much as we’d like to believe it, Trump’s words are not just the words of a single, monstrous man. It’s time that we as a culture stopped turning away from them in shame and embarrassment, like so many subway commuters did to me, on that morning I can never forget.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.