My first full-time ‘adult’ job was as a secretary at a work shed that employed around thirty men and only two women including myself. I was eighteen, single and just coming out of the awkward shell I’d crawled into during the years of high school which I pretty much considered the seventh circle of Hell. It was a liberating time for me. Finally I could escape the immaturity of teenaged boys, who’d paid me much unwanted attention because I had developed in the chestal region (a totes real word) earlier and larger than all the other girls. I’d basically spent the last six years being sexually harassed almost daily, but we didn’t call it that back then. If ever I mentioned the things that were said to me or the multiple times I’d been leered at, groped and grabbed, the response was akin to ‘boys will be boys’, so I learned to shut up and withstand it. It was less painful than speaking out and being dismissed. Coming out of high school at last I was rejoicing because I thought, naively, that grown men would never act that way. The saying is not ‘men will be men’, after all.
So at eighteen I thought I’d left those days behind. Alas. This was 1989. Sexual harassment was still laughed off by men, and a lot of women too. So when I started at this new job and one of the first things I noticed was the pornographic pictures of women plastered all over the walls of one employee’s work space, I didn’t say anything. I was the new girl and it was his workspace. What right did I have? Instead, I hid how uncomfortable those pictures made me feel every time I had to walk by them on the way to the (dark/scary/secluded) bathroom. When another man told me my clothes (knee length skirts and blouses that showed no cleavage) were too ‘distracting’ and that the guys were ‘talking about me’, so I should wear something different, I felt like shit. I felt exposed. Naked. Much like those women on the wall, even though I was fully, conservatively dressed. Apparently the guys were talking smut about me despite my every effort to be professional. Instead of calling them out, I felt like I ought to cover up.
I didn’t change what I wore, because fuck that putz, but I always wondered after that what the guys I’d thought of as friends were saying about me when I wasn’t around. There’s been a lot of discussion about ‘locker room talk’ lately and if you’ll bear with me I want to tell you another story about something that happened in that workplace and how it relates to Donald Trump and rape culture.
The guys used to enjoy Friday afternoon drinks in the shed and they usually invited me to join them. I did a couple of times, but not often because I didn’t want any of them think I was encouraging any sexual interest (especially not the porno-loving guy who did indeed ask me out once). One Friday I remained inside the office to finish up some work after 5 o’clock. One man began to talk openly about me, unaware that I was in the office and could hear everything. This man, I’ll call him Rick, was a tradesman who came in occasionally. He’s shaken my hand when we were introduced. He was around my father’s age, balding, overweight. Married with 2 kids. In other words he was not someone I’d ever consider as a sexual partner, nor did it occur to me he would see me as anything other than a young girl barely out of high school. But this Friday afternoon, Rick laughed in that lewd way guys do sometimes and said, “She might be young but she’s not too young to fuck. I’d give it a go. I think she might even be a virgin.”
Everyone laughed, and then there was an awkward silence. I imagined one of the other guys gesturing madly to Rick that I was still in the office. Someone changed the subject and I wasn’t mentioned again. I was glad of that, but still the damage was done. I felt nauseated. My skin was crawling. I slipped out of the office and slinked toward my car, a thief trying to escape the scene of the crime—as though it were MY crime, not Rick’s. As though the problem were my sensitivity, not Rick’s horrible words. But I didn’t want to be forced to laugh off Rick’s remarks the way I laughed off the porno and that guy’s comments about my clothes because I didn’t think I could do it. So I snuck away and never spoke of what I overheard.
I gave Rick short shrift after that, always wondering if he was picturing me naked, speculating about my virginity (by the way I was a virgin, Rick, but there is no alternate universe wherein I would ever have pondered the possibility of letting your fat sweaty dick be the first to enter my magic garden, you disgusting self-delusional perverted wanker). I felt sick and enraged in a non-specific way when I saw him. I wondered if his wife knew he’d been fantasizing about the eighteen year old girl at the work shed he visited on his rounds. I wondered how his daughter would feel if she overheard her father saying those things. I wondered what was wrong with him. I wondered what was wrong with a world in which words like his can be laughed off and called ‘locker room talk’. Boys being boys. No harm done.
Let me tell you, everything is wrong with that world. Rick’s words were harmful to me because they made me feel like a thing. Like meat. I might have expected it from one of the younger guys, but from a married man in his 40s? No. From a man who had been outwardly nice to me, who shook my hand as if we were equals? No. The man laughing and lewdly talking about me was unrecognizable from that apparently civilized fatherly guy, and I was left feeling foolish for having missed something crucial.
Which brings me to Donald Trump.
The video of Donald Trump and Billy Bush laughing together about all the things they’d like to do to Arianne Zucker has been shrugged off by Trump and some others as ‘locker room talk’. This is what men say when women aren’t around. You shouldn’t be upset because you weren’t meant to hear it. We should move on to more important things.
In other words, we shouldn’t be upset because you thought you’d get away with it.
We shouldn’t be upset because you’ve decided, as men, that our feelings as women are not important enough to discuss.
When I saw that video I was reminded of my experience with Rick. Because the most disturbing thing about it is not what Donald Trump said when Arianne wasn’t around, it’s how he acted when she was. It’s the fact that he used lewd, offensive, and disrespectful language when Arianne was out of ear shot, and then behaved differently when he was in her presence. It was seeing that change come over him. He shook her hand and acted as though he thought of her as an equal—just as Rick had once shaken my hand. He did not behave as though he’d just been talking about her legs and her pussy and laughing about forcing kisses upon her and how he could get away with it because he was a star. Just like Rick gave me no indication that he was thinking about fucking my virginity out of me when I was eighteen. In that case, more than the humiliation at being graded like a piece of meat, it was the duplicity that hurt. It is the duplicity that’s frightening.
Because that video reminds us all how fucking easy it is for guys like this to hide who they are. This is the very reason women tend to view every new guy they meet as a potential rapist. Because every new guy they meet is a potential rapist. We can’t tell which guys are dangerous and which aren’t by looking at them. The dangerous ones hide in plain sight. Yet if our caution is read as suspicion by the men we meet, we are taken to task for not giving them a chance. We are called frigid and paranoid and someone starts up a hashtag called #notallmen designed to hijack our conversations about an issue of fundamental importance to us. To hijack it and dismiss it and laugh at it, the way Trump laughed at the idea of grabbing women by the pussy without their permission. To laugh at our opinions. To laugh at our pain.
This is why behaving a different way in the ‘locker room’ as you do in public is so corrosive to all of society, it’s why degrading talk perpetuates rape culture. If men behave in a different way in private than they do when they are in the presence of women, how are we expected to know when we are in the presence of a man who might hurt us? Yet somehow we are expected to know. We are taught over and over again that we must protect ourselves but when we can’t see our enemy’s true face that is impossible.
Women are being harassed, abused, brutalized and murdered every day. EVERY DAY. And we cannot stop it because we CANNOT SEE OUR ENEMY COMING.
Do you get that?
Dismissing sexualized, bullying words like Trump’s as ‘harmless’ is insulting to every woman, ever. Because it means you are not listening to us when we tell you we’ve been hurt, just like a rapist doesn’t listen to a victim when she screams no. It’s this unwillingness to listen that allows rape to continue occurring. It is not the way women dress that causes rape. It is not alcohol. Rape is not the unavoidable side-effect of otherwise harmless hijinks. It is the male unwillingness to hear our cries of pain that allows rape to perpetuate in our society. It is this selective deafness that is literally killing us.
If you don’t hear us when we tell you something as simple as ‘we are offended’, how can we have faith that you will hear us when we say ‘STOP THIS IS ABUSE’?
Let me say this to you, any man who sees the furor over rape culture as a bunch of women being hysterical. Your world view does not carry more weight than ours. If we tell you something hurts, whether you meant to hurt us or not, you need to listen to that. We are in pain and we can’t stop it by ourselves because we are not self-harming here. Men are harming us. It is your responsibility, as the perpetrators, to stop it. Not ours. It is YOURS. You may not be an abuser–of course we know not all men are, and that so many many men are kind and loving and would never do these things–but you may be indirectly supporting our abusers by laughing off our pleas for understanding, calling us paranoid, calling us hysterical. By turning a blind eye when some forty year old guy says he’d like to take the virginity of a teenage girl and not telling him that’s not fucking okay. By laughing along when some entitled asshole says he can just grab any woman by the pussy because they can’t stop him. By letting this kind of thing slide, you are allowing the behavior. Allowing = condoning. If you don’t think jerks like Donald Trump are a problem then you ARE the problem.
Using a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality to continue excusing men for disgusting behavior is not only bad for women, but for men too. Every time we are laughed at we feel diminished. 50% of our global population feels unheard, is ignored, and behaviors that are damaging to that 50% continue unabated. And if you don’t think that damage to 50% of the global population isn’t going to infect the other 50% you are kidding yourself. 50% of the global population is very fucking pissed off with this perpetuation of unfairness, sexism and misogyny and, unlike in 1989, I for one am not willing to take it anymore. More pissed off women in the world equals more miserable men. That’s just logic.
Women are not hysterical or paranoid, we are desperate. Women have said all we can say, over and over again. We’ve screamed it at the top of our lungs. We’ve shown you pictures and bar graphs. Yet we are still being hurt in droves by men who can walk among us unimpeded, unchallenged. We are living in a culture that normalizes rape and abuse of women. That disregards our suffering and decriminalizes those that cause it with laughable sentencing of convicted offenders (in the rare case we can get a conviction and not have our accusations dismissed as being the crazy over sensitive ravings of someone who should have expected to be attacked because she went to a bar). It won’t change if you as men aren’t willing change it, and the first step is understanding that we DO have a problem, and that it’s not just a women’s problem.
The women in your lives, of this world, need you. We need you to be men, not boys in the locker room. Or better yet, to be human fucking beings and recognize that we are too. If you cut us we bleed. If you rape us we suffer. And if you diminish our pain by ignoring it, over time we will grow to resent you as much as we fear you.
And then nobody wins.