When a 22-year-old woman new to the workforce, entering a field dominated by men, found herself leered at by one of her managers, she didn’t know where to go with her discomfort. She endured his tendency to sidle up to her (a little too close), and she sat quietly in meetings as he made no attempt to peel his eyes away from her chest.
That young woman was me. This was not the only example of working in an environment where words, looks, and inappropriate touch — by any standard — left me less likely to participate fully or to express my ideas. Instead of feeling self-assured, I felt small and vulnerable.
In the job I just referenced, I did everything I could to avoid proximity to the man I mention. Naturally, when I was in the same room or work area, I had to put a smile on my face and interact in a professional manner.
More than three decades later, when a man I hoped would be a pleasant professional contact put his hands on me — a delicate way of saying that he cornered me and groped me despite my saying “no” and “stop” — I was shocked at what was taking place, and stunned to find myself in a position I couldn’t have imagined. The reason I couldn’t imagine it was two-fold. First, I had thought him a gentleman, particularly as we had gone out on a “date” and he behaved impeccably, both of us enjoying each other’s company and discussing career issues. Second, I was no longer young and “cute,” no longer in possession of a fit figure, and not giving off any signals that his aggressive advances were welcome.
In my own mind, on some level, I thought I must have done something wrong. For days, I glared at my aging face in the mirror, wondering how this could have happened. Though I was suffering elements of the “blame the victim” mentality, I couldn’t square my behavior much less my appearance with that stance. And I kicked myself for these thoughts, for not fully recognizing that I was, indeed, faultless; that I was caught off-guard by a frightening, inappropriate, and as it did turn out, professionally damaging incident.
Speaking of my professional life, which includes 20 years in multinational corporations and 10+ years as an independent consultant and freelance writer, there have been other uncomfortable moments. These were moments when I chose to bite my tongue after some galling sexist remark, or pull back from potential opportunity because the gender “discomfort” factor was greater than my capacity to deal with it at the time.
My deference, or for that matter silence, was a matter of financial survival. How many women have found themselves in this position — over and over and over again?
While I have been relatively quiet in my writing these past months for personal reasons, that doesn’t mean I haven’t watched this year’s political circus with keen interest, a vested interest.
My vested interest extends far beyond the issues we typically think of as being gender-oriented, of course. My “interest” includes my experience as a long-time single mother who has had to cobble together a living for years (without the advantages of employer-based benefits), as a parent who sees her sons carrying the burden of college debt (despite their scholarships), as a taxpayer, as a member of an ethnically diverse community, and as a woman in that precarious demographic of the underemployed / unemployed caught between 50 and 65 — too “old” to easily get work, but too young for social security much less Medicare.
For the moment, I will set aside discussion of the issues that have to do with my ability to earn a buck, and not be terrified about my financial future.
For the moment, I will set aside my concerns over the ability of my sons and their peers to access the mythological American Dream — or at least a decent job without a decade of debt.
For the moment, I will set aside my outrage at the racism and homophobia and xenophobia that has come out of the closet in recent years — and no more so than in this current election cycle.
But I cannot and will not turn my back on the misogyny that is now front and center, seemingly disregarded by those who continue to support Donald Trump.
Disregarded as less important than, say, jobs.
Yes, many conservatives are now dumping the candidate they have reluctantly embraced. For now. And true enough, the words and behaviors we have seen play out in the media (the infamous Access Hollywood tape) should not be a surprise to any of us. Yet the 2005 audio clip we have now heard (countless times) leaves me aghast, sickened, infuriated.
Meanwhile, the pundits pose this question: What makes this different from all the previous reporting of Trump’s transgressions against women?
Try this as a reason.
Too many of us have lived some version of this experience — in our personal and professional lives — as we try to get through a day, as we look for jobs or try to excel in them, and as we find ourselves on the receiving end of demeaning or humiliating comments, not to mention unwanted physical contact.
This doesn’t require that we be twenty-something or thirty-something supermodels (or pageant contestants or actresses); women of any age, shape, or color can be victims of this clearly indefensible behavior.
And sexual aggression, in any of its forms, is never acceptable.
To those who say “this is how Alpha men talk behind closed doors,” I say this: I’ve known my share of Alpha men who would never speak this way about women. On the contrary. Nor would they stoop to “take” what they have not been invited to share.
Beyond Trump’s appalling use of “it” in reference to a woman, which could not more plainly reflect objectification, let’s consider this: In the context of trying to get, keep, or properly perform one’s job, it’s equally plain to see that looksism, sexist language, and sexually aggressive behaviors affect our ability to make a living. We may find ourselves walking a very fine line between keeping food on the table and a roof overhead, and keeping our distance from unwanted harassment or worse, sexually predatory behavior.
Sexual aggression is about jobs — for women. Sexual aggression is about children if those women, women like you and me, and your sister and your niece and your BFF can’t make a decent living in pervasively misogynistic environments.
The evidence of Trump’s groping strikes a nerve far beyond reading about his piggish blathering and disrespectful treatment of women, and even beyond the emotional scars so many women have thought long buried.
Curious about the definitions of groping and sexual assault, and the subtle distinctions in some of the words being used in reference to Trump, I found this:
Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape…
… Most states have made sexual assault the umbrella term for other crimes, such as rape and unwanted sexual contact. Some states distinguish between crimes involving penetration and crimes involving coerced or involuntary touching, making the former an aggravated or first-degree sexual assault and the latter a lower-level sexual assault…
“Sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive… a lower-level sexual assault…”
As the dwindling number of Trump surrogates, including women, pass to the pivot and attempt their Deflection Dance, I cannot fathom that they actually believe the words they feel compelled to speak. Even as I hear these individuals repeat that what the American voters really care about is policy on the economy and jobs, I offer this: For any woman who has been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in her personal or professional life, much less an experience when the boundary has been crossed into sexual aggression, it is absolutely absurd to imagine that this doesn’t impact our ability to adequately provide for our families.
And that, of course, results in deleterious and costly ripple effects throughout our society.
It is one thing to teach our daughters and granddaughters and our sons and grandsons that “no means no,” and that without a “yes” it’s hands off, but apparently we must instruct some of our professional politicians that diminishing, intimidating, and sexually assaulting our girls and women is not only demeaning to those on the receiving end, but a fouling of everything this country stands for.
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