But then a friend posted what should have been an innocuous meme on Facebook—because what was one more?—and I finally broke. I unleashed my frustration in the form of disagreement that hijacked her post. I chose my words carefully. I was respectful. And I apologized for the way I went about it, but I couldn’t apologize for my words. Here’s what I really meant.
I’m angry about the silent men and the deflecting women. I’m utterly baffled that a self-respecting, well-educated, God-fearing man or woman could meet news of those reprehensible words—themselves an admission of repeated, habitual sexual assault—with, “Yeah, but:”
“Yeah, but Clinton isn’t any better…”
“Yeah, but look at what Hillary did when Bill got caught…”
“Yeah, but they’re just words…”
And two that bothered me the most:
“Yeah, but are we actually sure he ever assaulted anyone? Was there ever any proof?”
And, “Yeah, but how come these same women who are upset about this thought nothing of reading Fifty Shades of Grey?”
So, finally, in my own space, with all the courage I can muster, I say, “YEAH, BUT NOTHING.”
Friends, how can this be something we disagree about? What is there to debate? What he said and the actions they betray are abhorrent. Full stop.
You want to talk about Hillary or Bill? Let’s do that. You want to talk about porn or terrible fiction? Let’s do that. But let’s not intentionally muddy the waters or detract from something that is an abomination all on its own. The consequences are too dire. Let’s not brush off an admission of guilt and demand proof of something that is always done by cowards, almost always in secret and darkness, that takes more bravery than you can imagine to bring into the light.
And by now you've guessed that this is personal, but shouldn’t my words carry more weight because of that?
Here is where I take a deep breath and ask you to bear with me. Here is where I tell you that when I was seventeen, I was repeatedly harassed at an internship, but at first it was just words. Then one day, he grabbed me by the arm on the stairs and wouldn’t let me go. Another day soon after, he slammed me up against a wall, pinning my hands and pressing against my hips so hard that it hurt. His face so close to mine that I could feel his breath, he threatened to come to my house if I told.
I wrestled and lost sleep, but eventually I told. My parents and sponsor were enraged, but still, in front of a committee of men and women, I had to relive it all in humiliating detail. And then do you know what they asked me?
“Well, did you ask him to stop?”
Even after they admitted that I wasn’t the first to file a complaint, they explained that this was probably just a cultural misunderstanding, since he was an immigrant from the Caribbean. They moved me to a different assignment. As if I were the problem. They assured me he would be fired. "You're not going to press charges, are you?" they said. And somehow I knew, even at seventeen, there would have been no point.
When I was twenty-one, a man I barely knew entered my room while I was sleeping. No, I didn’t ask him to. No, I didn’t invite him into my bed. Yes, of course, I told him to stop. Thank God he finally did. And I carried the shame of that one for most of my adult life, as if it were mine to carry; as if I were the one who had forcefully tried to take what didn’t belong to me.
When I was twenty-five, after attending a mandatory “sensitivity training” about sexual harassment in the workplace in which a white-haired man said, “This is a waste of time. This isn't even a problem anymore," a man at work leered at me from over the top of my cubicle every day for three months. He commented on my appearance crudely, daily, and asked me out repeatedly, though he knew I was married. He told me it was a shame I hadn’t had the chance to “experience him” before I got married. I was the only woman in the department, let alone the office. I hesitated to say anything, knowing it was my word against his, that I had no proof, and that, likely, I’d have to continue to see him every day and even be alone with him regardless of whether I spoke up. Finally, hesitantly, I told the management.
Again, they needed direct quotes, vivid, humiliating details. They interrogated me. They informed me there was nothing they could do “until something happens.” Until something happens, they said.
“Well, did you ask him to stop?” they asked before moving me—not him—to a different office. Mysteriously, a month or two later, my position was no longer needed and I was let go. As if I were the problem. He wasn’t fired until years later, and even then it wasn’t because of the dozens of women who had reported him for sexual harassment; it was because he had lied on his resume.
This is to speak nothing of the other men who found their ways into my room when I was sleeping, though thankfully I was able to yell them out of there. This is to speak nothing of the hands that found their way onto my butt or breasts while in a crowd.
The words that threw me into a tailspin this week weren’t those of that egomaniac; they were the words of my friends—good, kind, smart people—who don’t seem to understand the weight of those words. When I was a victim, good, kind, smart people asked me loaded questions that suggested I might have been in the wrong, must have been mistaken, must have been exaggerating. They didn’t trust me. They placated me. They silenced me. They changed my response in the future.
If we diminish admissions of sexual assault, if our first instinct is to suspect victims, if we question their role in their own abuse, if we silence their claims, if we ignore them, what will happen next time? What are we teaching our daughters? Our sons?
From my experience, I have learned that no legislation can insulate a woman from retribution when she reports sexual harassment. It’s in the looks and hushed tones, it’s in the tense atmosphere, it’s in the side eyes and insinuations that "some women are too uptight." In our current culture, there is always retribution.
When you detract from the horrific nature of not only his words but what it means he has done by changing the subject to someone else's wrongdoing, you may not even realize it, but you are complicit in the problem.
When you try to compare Trump’s words—about repeatedly touching women without their consent—to a fictional series about a woman involved in BDSM with her consent, you are complicit in the problem. My sexual assaults and harassment had one thing in common: I did not give my consent. I can and did choose not to read Fifty Shades of Grey. I did not have that choice when it came to assault. No one does.
And when someone seeking our country’s highest office can get away with these words, when you give him a pass, though you might never dream of doing so, you are telling me, my daughters and yours that our experience doesn’t matter, that our safety doesn’t matter, that our very humanity doesn’t matter.
I know that’s not what you said. You would never say that; of course you wouldn't. But for me and so many millions of other women who have suffered abuse, that’s what we heard.
Good men and women, for the love of God, please be willing to listen to others whose experiences don’t look like yours; please trust them when they tell you what it was like, even if it is hard for you to hear. I promise you, it’s harder for them to say. Please be willing to consider that your words may not be communicating the way you think they are.
I’m walking away from this week feeling bruised. For every prominent Christian leader or conservative who spoke boldly, there seemed to be many more people I actually know who made excuses or encouraged distractions. I’m choosing to unfollow people I like, for the sake of my heart. I’m choosing to post this, the bravest thing I’ve ever written, instead of participating in debates on Facebook. I’m choosing to remind my children—and especially my daughters—at every opportunity that they are the only bosses of their bodies and they alone can determine how and when and by whom they are touched. I am reminding them it is never, ever rude to tell someone to stop. And I am shifting my focus away from “no means no” and teaching my children—and especially my son—to respect the bodies and wishes of others and to look and ask for consent.
It wasn't my intention to make you feel bad, to call you out or to make you angry. I really don't care who you're voting for. I know your opinion of me may change after reading this. Though my husband holds my hand as I launch this into the world, admittedly, I am risking the humiliation of having my father, grandfather, brothers, uncles and friends read this. I am risking having former and potential future employers read this. I’m laying a lot on the line.
But I know who I am: I am loved, treasured, supported and whole. Any potential risk is worth it to me, because I know there are other women unable to share their stories, women who desperately need you to understand that words matter: his, mine and yours.