I swear, this election …
“Locker room talk.”
“Boys will be boys.”
“All men speak that way about women. Lighten up! It’s no big deal.”
I’ve heard these things said over the past couple of weeks in the wake of the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump talks about what he believes he’s entitled to do to women because of his fame. I’ve heard people use weasel words to defend Donald Trump’s infractions as minor sins, just words—he didn’t actually do anything.
But let’s be clear: If you brag about your ability to make unwanted sexual contact with a woman, you’re bragging about sexually assaulting a woman. Full stop.
Yet there are still people prepared to say on behalf of Donald Trump that he didn’t mean it or that it’s just the way men talk in a locker room. It’s inappropriate and offensive, sure. But, come on. He apologized, all right?
Fine. Donald Trump made those knuckle-dragging remarks about women. But then he discounted all the women who said that, in fact, that is how Donald Trump actually treats women. And then he went on to say that at least some of the testimony given by his accusers is clearly false, because, “I mean, seriously, did you even look at those women?”
Which seems to me to be a curious way of defending oneself against charges of sexual violence. Reading between the lines, his argument appears to be: “Look, when I sexually assault women, I’m much more discriminating. You’ve got to give me credit for having better taste in targets than is evidenced by these losers.”
So, yes, I’m appalled by the atrocious acts of the man-child who has succeeded in winning the Republican nomination. But what bothers me, even more, are all the people defending him and in the process, normalizing unacceptable behavior toward women. Calling them names. Body shaming them. Acting as though they’re somehow objects males may rightfully possess.
But what makes me angriest (and most ashamed) is the lack of shock expressed by women I see and talk to. I can’t tell you how many women have witnessed my incredulity at Donald Trump’s behavior, his language, and said, “You’re kidding, right? This happens to women all the time. We’ve learned to make our way in the world, understanding that unwanted male attention is a fact of life. How do you not know this?”
And I feel like an idiot. Of course, I know there’s such a thing as sexual harassment. I’ve had to take numerous trainings about how to deal with it, how not to commit it. But I thought—naïvely, it turns out—that while sexual harassment is by no means uncommon, it can’t be an almost universal experience among women. Can it? Seriously?
Here, I thought I was an enlightened male, a supportive ally in the feminist fight against the patriarchy. Come to find out, I’m deeply embedded in a system that continues with stunning regularity to treat women as extensions of male need.
I thought I’d successfully pulled myself out of the chauvinistic swamp by dint of will. But I was too busy patting myself on the back for my progressive masculinity to see that women all around me have had to adjust themselves to a reality about which I remained (and to a certain extent, still remain) blithely oblivious.
Two things occur to me after having had these conversations about how life actually exists for women in our culture. First, women live in a world that is much more difficult to navigate than most men can imagine. I’ve never worried, for example, that getting or keeping a job would require me to make choices about how much I’m willing to put up with as a result of my gender.
I’ve never felt like I had to make choices about whether to act or to dress in any particular way so that I might escape the unwanted attention of my superiors.
I’ve never had to learn the subtle signals that would alert me to the possible sexual intentions of my co-workers, merely as a matter of protecting myself.
When I walk into a room full of people of the opposite sex, I don’t have to take the temperature of everyone there to determine whether it’s a safe space or not.
Second, the fact that I’ve been able to live as long as I have without knowing what was happening to most of the women around me—aside from making me feel awful—points up the tremendous privilege men enjoy. When you can take your own safety more or less for granted, you inherit a certain responsibility for ensuring that everyone else who doesn’t enjoy your advantage is safe.
That’s the problem that exasperates me the most: I could feel a whole lot better about the current state of affairs if the answer were just that women needed to be a bit more vigilant. But in fact, the answer to the problem of misogyny, and gender inequality, and rape culture isn’t to fine tune women’s threat detectors to be even more sensitive—but to fine tune the sensitivities of the rest of us males who tend to think that if we don’t know about it, it’s not a problem.
Of course, men have to do better. But to do better requires that we sacrifice some of our privilege to acknowledge that we aren’t nearly as aware and in charge as many of us would like to think. We have to admit that not only our silence but our willful ignorance about the fear women live with is what makes it possible for a violent system to survive.
Needless to say, I wouldn’t draw it up this way. But the ironic thing about this whole epiphany I’ve had since “Tapegate” is that it took Donald Trump to make me aware of how much I participate in a dehumanizing system that looks a whole lot more like the one he’s acting as Grand Marshall for than the enlightened oneI thought I already inhabited.
We take our lessons where we find them.
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