By: Stephanie Dolgoff
Of all the things Donald Trump has been called during this election, perhaps “human trigger” (as one Slate writer dubbed him) is the most accurate — in my experience, at least. I’m one of the countless women for whom Trump’s rhetoric has brought up memories of abuse and sexual assault that I’d personally rather not dwell on. As I faced the barrage of headlines detailing the presidential candidate’s alleged unwanted gropes and lip plants, and his callous dismissal of the women accusing him, I supposed it was mostly women who were viscerally affected by Trump’s triggering language. Turns out, he may be unleashing painful, traumatic feelings among men, as well — or at least he is for one.
I’m one of the countless women for whom Trump’s rhetoric has brought up memories of abuse and sexual assault that I’d personally rather not dwell on.
I was at work last week, drinking coffee and checking emails, when a Facebook message popped up on my monitor. “It’s time to come clean,” it read. It was from a guy I went to high school with — I’ll call him Pete. “I need to apologize for bad behavior in 1983 or so,” it said. “We were on a bus.”
Pete is now far from those high school years and, to the extent that sunny photos on Facebook can be believed, a loving husband and dad, with lots of tattoos and at least one band he gigs with on weekends. In his message to me, he went on to express profound sorrow for having tried to force his hand up my shirt on a school trip back when we were both 15. “I have had this on my conscience since that day,” he wrote. “I use that incident to remind me that all it takes is one bad decision to become a person with lifelong regret.”
I felt the hair on my arms stand up as I read that. “Holy shit,” I said out loud as my officemates asked what was up (the perks of an open office plan, I guess). I held a finger up in a one-sec gesture, and kept reading. He said that my reaction — apparently, I had asked how his girlfriend would feel about what he was doing, but I don’t remember any of it — was instrumental in “setting him straight” and making him the man he is today: one who, I know from his Facebook posts, is revolted by rape culture and specifically the rhetoric and alleged actions of Trump. He told me that what had happened all those years ago is why he thinks that men need to take a stand on so-called “locker room talk” and other forms of female objectification.
I backed up and read the whole thing aloud to my two female coworkers. His message ended with: “I’ve never done anything like that since that day. [That incident] wrenches me. I’m sorry you were the victim that day so many years ago. Thank you, Stephanie, and I’m honestly sorry.” Their eyes widened, and all they could say was, “Holy shit.”
Until that morning, I’d been wondering about how regular guys felt about the Access Hollywoodrecording, in which Trump bragged about having committed sexual assault. The men I’m close to were appalled, and male pundits and politicians and sports figures expressed outrage. A few men I knew pointed out that some men talked in vulgar terms about sex in locker rooms, but never about non-consensual touching — a.k.a., sexual assault. And I believe that they are sincere, in a general kind of way.
But it would be impossible for so many women to get raped, harassed, force-kissed, fingered and fondled against their will repeatedly over the course of their lives if some of the men we know as “the good ones” had never done anything they were ashamed of. I wondered if there had been much soul searching among guys, if not from Trump and his ilk, at least among the Petes of the world. Before Pete’s message landed in my inbox, though, I hadn’t heard about any.
The fact that I didn’t remember Pete’s attempted groping, which happened in public, on a bus, makes me think I was more annoyed than afraid. But, I did remember how vulnerable I had been at 15. I’d been sexually assaulted the year before (on another school trip), and was still sorting through that. It would take years for me to understand that it hadn’t simply been making out gone wrong. Until I was in my late 20s, every time I experienced one of the more mundane forms of sexualized intimidation — street corner non-billionaires offering up their insights on my body — I seethed in shame and fury, even though I knew rationally that I shouldn’t let it bother me. I didn’t realize that the feeling of powerlessness on the street was the same one I had when I said no to that boy when I was 14, and he didn’t comply.
And of course, that boy never expressed regret for his actions. In fact, the next time I saw him, he’d grinned at me, causing me to retch in a nearby garbage can. He likely never learned from what he did. That’s why it was so heartening to hear that Pete had not only realized what was wrong with his actions, but felt the need to reach out after so many years to give me the only sense of justice he could. His apology stood in for the many others I likely will never receive. It reminded me that this is often how broader progress is made — over many years, and sometimes through disjointed, non-dramatic actions that many of us will never know about, because most people don’t have Pete’s courage and self-awareness.
I wrote back to Pete immediately, sending him a Facebook hug, and wishing I could give him a real one — he lives in another state, and no emoji or sticker can convey what this conversation meant to me. He told me he was tearing up, presumably in relief at getting this weight off his chest after so many decades, and for my understanding. The idea that Pete had carried this around all this time was heartbreaking to me — he was a kid, too, and I have a pretty good idea what he’d been taught about consent and respect in the ‘80s, if anything. My coworker pointed out that, given how shaken Pete was by what he did and how long he’s lived with the guilt, his own dark thoughts and actions probably scared him more than his actions at the time scared me.
Which brings me back to my despair over Trump’s followers, many of whom openly denigrate women. Logic tells me there are many Petes out there, too, who either always knew or have learned the hard way what rape culture does to women — or others who have yet to have their own epiphanies, election-related or not.
They may not hold rallies, but they are legion, and they are why I’m optimistic. Perhaps Trump should be thanked for accidentally contributing to that progress, if only by “triggering” men into remembering incidents like this, and perhaps making amends and forgiving themselves.
On second thought, nah.