My thighs stick to the red vinyl upholstery of the booth as I fan myself with a paper menu. It’s the middle of August and the ceiling fans hum quietly above us, doing little to cut through the heat. Across the table from me is Ethan, who just finished his shift at the diner. He’s breaking up cheap weed into an E-Z Wider. It’s after business hours and he complains about the worst customers that day, while picking out seeds and stems.
“They tipped me two fucking dollars,” he says, licking the edge of the white wrapper. “So I followed them to the door, tapped that bitch on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, was there something wrong with the service?’”
Just then, one of the cooks, Daniel, comes out from the kitchen. He’s always been nice to me, but nice in a creepy older-uncle way. He rests his hand on your shoulder a little too long, always mentions how “womanly” you look. As he pulls up his pants, which fall below his large gut, he takes off his white apron, stained brown with bacon grease and sweat.
“Hello, beautiful,” he says, sliding his massive body into the booth. He puts his arm around me. I feel the wetness from his armpit through his dirty white t-shirt.“If it isn’t my girlfriend.” He laughs. “I’d run away with you in a heartbeat, you know that, right?”
“You have a girlfriend,” I say, as if the only reason a 20-year-old junior in college wouldn’t want to sleep with a father of two recently released on parole is because he’s unavailable. Women feel obligated to justify denying a man’s advances, because often men aren’t able to wrap their heads around the idea that we simply don’t want to fuck them. And usually it is that simple.
“I’m gonna tell Diane,” Ethan says, taking the first two puffs of the joint. “She’s not gonna like that you’re hitting on another woman.” Diane is Daniel’s live-in girlfriend of ten-plus years, the mother of his two children.
“Calm down,” Daniel says. “Nothing’s gonna happen. But oh, boy, if it did.” Then he takes his hand, puts it on my crotch, and slides it between my legs. I pull away, press myself against the wall. At that moment, another cook hollers for Daniel to do something in the kitchen. “Alright, alright, I’m coming,” he says, pulling himself up from the seat and walking away. My legs are shaking. I try to steady my hand as I take the joint from Ethan and bring it to my lips.
I feel naive that I didn’t see it coming. Because of course a grown man would think my vagina was his to touch whenever and wherever he wanted. We’ve met twice before. What about my demeanor during those interactions indicated I wanted him to grab my pussy? And why is that the question I ask myself and not, “Why the fuck would he think it’s okay to grab my pussy?”
We finish the rest of the joint. I’m quiet. Ethan counts his tips and we go outside to smoke a cigarette. I tell him what Daniel did. I expect him to be as shocked and angry as I am. He’s unfazed. “Now you know how I feel,” he says, casually flicking his cigarette onto the campus lawn. “Those cooks are always making dirty comments to me in the kitchen.” A stranger grabbing my genitals was not newsworthy. This was the way men behaved and I would have to accept it. “We live in a pussy-grabbing world,” Ethan was saying in so many words. “Get used to it.”
Nearly a decade earlier, I’m 12 years old at my first Holy Communion. The boy sitting next to me decides he likes me. “You’re gonna be my girlfriend,” he says, leaning in close. I can feel his hot, sticky breath on the side of my face as he begins to slowly move his clammy, stubby fingers down my arm toward my elbow. Shifting my body away, I don’t say anything. “What? Are you a lesbian or something?” he asks. Not knowing what a lesbian is, I shake my head. “You don’t want to be my girlfriend, so you must be a lesbian.” I’m embarrassed and I don’t know how to tell him, if I can tell him, to get off of me. After telling my mom what happened, she complains to one of the nuns and he’s forced to write an apology — for calling me a “lesbian,” not for rubbing his half chub on me while sucking on the Body of Christ. Handing me the apology note, he says, “Look, I put cool stickers on it.”
What I felt in that pew, I felt outside the diner. I felt when Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and again when he called it “locker-room banter.” I felt violated, grossed out, pissed off, and like everyone just wanted me to shut up. They wanted me to accept that these things happen and not make a big deal of them. Appreciate my Power Ranger stickers and move on.
“I know this is frat house stuff,” Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro says of Trump’s comments. “I know this is football locker-room talk.” But if you look at the Steubenville “stars” and Kappa Alpha bros, it’s obvious that football players and frat boys do more than just talk. If you listen to, and more importantly empathize with, the 11 women accusing Trump of assault, it’s obvious Trump does more than just talk.
“This is the way the world works,” Scott Baio said of men grabbing pussies. “It’s not a big thing.” But it’d be a “big thing” if Baio or Voight or Giuliani had to constantly worry about having their dicks yanked against their will on a city bus, soccer field, subway platform, or at their cousin’s house.
Normalizing men bragging about sexual assault only normalizes sexual assault. And that shit is already way too normal. As soon as we all recognize that this is not the “way the world works,” the world can stop working this way. “Boys will be boys,” so long as boys are taught that joking about forcibly molesting strangers is the norm.
“The women voting for Trump are not looking for a father figure or a role model,” Trump’s former spokesperson Katrina Pierson said. “They knew Trump was not an altar boy.”
People have argued that Trump’s comments are harmless because they were said in private. “I do believe that most men will talk about women in ways that they would never talk about publicly,” Trump supporter Vicki Sciolaro said. “Of course if [Donald Trump and Billy Bush] would have known that they were being recorded, there’s no doubt in my mind that the conversation would have been totally different.”
Except being in public doesn’t deter men from committing sexual assault. There are signs on the New York subway that read: “Sexual harassment is a crime on the subway, too,” as if men need to be reminded that crowded public spaces aren’t an excuse to force themselves on someone. On those signs, there’s an important reminder to the victims, too: “Don’t stand for it or feel ashamed, or be afraid to speak up.”
As long as we keep sharing our stories, keep reminding our attackers that it’s not us who should be ashamed but them, then we are changing the conversation around sexual assault. We are making it okay for another woman to share her story. One by one, we’re dispelling the myth that women lie about sexual assault. With all of the men that accuse women of lying about rape, you’d think there were cash prizes given out to assault victims. (There are not.) Trump has accused the women who’ve come forward against him of seeking fame, as if gaining notoriety as the woman a racist moldy sweet potato felt-up at a dinner party is every little girl’s dream.
No amount of money or fame is worth the pain and public humiliation of being the victim of sexual assault. No one would go through it only to see their rapist put away for less than a college semester.
When we speak up, we’re building a culture where women are heard, trusted, and respected. We make it a little bit harder for men, particularly rich, powerful ones, to lie their way out of consequences. One woman’s voice can be questioned, discredited, harassed, but thousands of voices can drown out those of the ignorant, washed-up 80s actors who want us to “grow up.” Growing up doesn’t help. But speaking up does. Never shutting up does. And we won’t.