All Talk

My first time was on the street in the middle of the day. My second time happened on a train. The first time I think I was a freshman in high school. I honestly don’t remember exactly because I’ve never talked about it. I was walking down one of the avenues in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. I was with a friend. As we approached the corner, a man rounded it swiftly from Lincoln street. He ran into me, then grabbed my left breast. He held on, he rubbed, he squeezed, and then he ran.

“That man,” I said, “He grabbed me.”

“Really?” my friend said.

We didn’t say anything else. We never talked about it again.

My second time was also in high school. I was riding a crowded M train home during rush hour. The train was packed, bodies close and squishy. We were underground, in the tunnel between stations. I was standing, holding onto the hot metal pole, swaying with the movements of the train. From the crowd I felt a hand, strong and sure, grab my crotch. At first I didn’t register what was happening. It seemed absurd. My first instinct was to laugh. My second instinct was to hide. No one around seemed to notice. If they did, they didn’t do anything. I also did nothing. I waited in my disgust, hoping it was a mistake. When his fingers began exploring, I used what felt like all of my strength to push his hand away with my own. I remember how his fingers felt in my fingers. We stood there entwined, almost holding hands, as the train rattled on. He didn’t look at me, but I looked at him. His hand didn’t relent. He continued trying to push through, to grope me all the way to the next station. When we stopped and when the doors opened like breath, I elbowed my way off the train and fled.

I’ve never talked about either of these incidents. For years I didn’t call them what they were. They were sexual assaults. At the time, I didn’t talk about them because of shame. But as the years went by it wasn’t shame that kept me silent. It was normalcy. It was the fact that my close female friends had experienced worse. My stories didn’t seem worth mentioning. After all, what is remarkable about a woman being sexually assaulted?

What is remarkable about The Tape? The only thing that strikes me as particularly remarkable about it is that the man saying the words is a Presidential candidate. Even then, the man attached to those words has spouted hateful talk in public throughout this campaign and well before it began. What is remarkable about The Tape is that it feels wholly unremarkable.

The man tried to defend The Tape by categorizing it. It was sanctionable, he argued, because “it was locker room talk.” I’m not sure any group has a similar out. Women certainly have no talk that is made defensible based on where their talk occurred. “It was just kitchen talk” was never a phrase in our history. Men are allowed this. Can you imagine this defense being used for any other kind of opinion? Had the man on The Tape been talking about assassinating the sitting President, for instance, using “it was just locker room talk” would not be a reasonable response. If the man on The Tape had bragged about raping children, there is no room on Earth that would have made that talk seem OK. But this kind of talk, under the mysterious protections of the “locker room” (even though they were on a bus at the time), feels normal. It’s why The Tape felt unremarkable. Gross and deplorable, yes, but surprising? No.

What does “it was locker room talk” really mean? It means: Boys will be boys. It means we expect boys and men to talk about sexual assault. We expect them to brag about it with each other. While many men have come forward since The Tape dropped and have said that their own talk does not sound like that talk, their reactions are beside the point. The point is that a man and many other people believe it is appropriate for men’s talk to openly discuss and glorify sexual crimes. The point is that we have a culture in which some of us believe this is fine.

The “it’s locker room talk” defense is dangerous not only because we know it’s not just talk; it’s dangerous because it normalizes the actions described in the talk. If that’s just how men talk, then sexual assault is just how men behave. Normalization works on everyone: Men come to believe it, and so do women. The recent trial and criminally brief incarceration of Brock Turner demonstrate our normalization of rape. So do the ways we talk about male sexual desire: “I couldn’t control myself”; “I was too aroused”; “something else took over.” We allow men, through their talk and through our talk about them, to act irresponsibly, even criminally.

And it’s not just that the locker-room-talk defense is a poor defense; it’s that the defense itself is the problem. “It’s just locker room talk” and permissive attitudes like it allow us to have a culture in which sexual assault is the norm. It’s as if a child hit another child and then defended herself by saying, “No, you don’t get it. I just hit her because I hate her and she’s stupid.” The defense is the issue. Defending The Tape by saying “it’s just the way men talk” is why we have a culture in which my teenage self didn’t think my own sexual assaults were noteworthy.

Women are grabbed, groped, harassed, raped, and assaulted all the time. But in no reality should this ever, ever be normal. Unfortunately, in our world, it is. And the “it’s just talk” way of thinking silences women, and perpetuates the normalcy. When there’s nothing surprising or shocking about being sexually assaulted, why would you ever mention it? So that you can bask in the shame of it? So you can be publicly questioned, mocked, and maybe not even believed? As long as male talk “is just talk” — even if it’s violent, disgusting, hateful talk –women won’t talk.

We’ve been talking about The Tape. That makes me glad. We’re talking about sexual assault on a much larger scale. I’m hearing new talk about sexual assault that I haven’t heard before. I’m also hearing talk that I’ve heard many times. Male politicians invoked their daughters and granddaughters: “As the father of two beautiful young daughters,” they said. “I’m the proud grandfather to a beautiful girl,” they declared. Strange to me is that the men never reference the fact that they are simply human beings. “As a human being, these comments strike me as particularly offensive, violent and hateful, and I reject them and anyone who would spew such things.” What a world that would be.[1]

I’m sure these men don’t intend to mean that their daughters and granddaughters are the only ones deserving of a world free of sexual assault. I’m sure they don’t mean that. I’m sure they don’t mean that their female children, in their innocence, are easier to empathize with than the millions of teenage and adult women who currently live under the daily threat of sexual violence.

Of course we should do better by our daughters and granddaughters. But is that really what we need in order to give a damn? How about the fact that 1 in 5 women will be raped in her lifetime? How about the fact that 31 states allow rapists to sue for custody and visitation of children conceived through their raping? How about the fact that a woman in college is three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women? For women of the same age not enrolled in college, the rate is four times higher compared to other women. Native American women are twice as likely to be be victims of rape compared to other races. How about the fact that in eight out of ten cases, the woman knew her rapist.

I appreciate that many men are denouncing The Tape. I appreciate their public outrage. I’d appreciate it more if they used their voice, their stage, and their privilege to help all women –not just their relatives, not just the yet-to-be-sexually-assaulted[2] — know that they deserve more. Consistently invoking female children gives the distinct impression that this kind of talk, this kind of action, is only unpardonable against future women. It encourages women like the one I was at fourteen to stay silent. It’s not that we think we deserve it; it’s that we begin to expect it.

Expectations matter. There was part of me walking around in a teenage girl’s body that expected to be groped. It’s just the way it was. I continue to inhabit a body that expects violation. I continue to walk this earth with one eye turned behind me.

Talk matters. Talk shapes our beliefs. The way we talk about things changes those things. Talk has that power. So does its absence. I didn’t talk. But I am now. And I have one man to thank for that. I’ve been sexually assaulted twice by two different men. It took a man like Donald to help me realize what those incidents really were. I also have 8.5 million women to thank, and counting. Thank you for sharing your stories. Keep talking.

[1] What of the man without daughters or granddaughters? Pity such man, with only sons to his name. He has no female progeny to invoke. He can only reject the comments on their own merits.

[2] I sincerely, sincerely hope, though math tells us that one in four girls will be sexually abused before she turns eighteen years old.