Just Locker Room Talk?
I am less concerned with Trump than I am for the women who have come forward.
Posted October 19, 2016
I am moved to write about sexual harassment and sexual assault because these issues have achieved headline status in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape revealing comments from Donald Trump about how he responds to women. I am less concerned with Mr. Trump than I am with the women who have come forward to tell their personal stories and how our culture persists in discrediting women’s testimony about our own experiences.
I am seventy-four years old, the age of Jessica Leeds, and I can well understand why she did not speak up sooner.
Have I ever been sexually assaulted? Yes. Was I raped? No. I have written about this experience in a different context for the Star-Tribune.
My point does not concern how many women are subject to rape over the course of their lifetimes—although this subject has its own urgency—but about how most women experience some version of the kinds of nonconsensual physical contact that we are now hearing about in the mainstream media.
When I was sexually assaulted in 1964, I was twenty-two years old and ignorant of feminism. Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking book The Feminine Mystique had been published in 1963, but I hadn’t read it. The guy who assaulted me seemed like a gentleman—until he wasn’t. He was a graduate student pursuing a business degree at a local university (where I was studying German in preparation for my first year language exams at another university). We seemed to be ‘dating,’ until he tried to undress me in his dorm room and persuade me to have sex. I was a virgin (yes at the advanced age of 22!), hence naïve and inexperienced. He did not believe me when I explained this to him and begged him to stop. Instead he forced me onto on his bed, where he pinned me down. I felt too embarrassed to scream, although I threatened to. Because there were others within hearing, and it was broad daylight, he relented somewhat and I managed to escape, fleeing the building and racing across campus. He pursued me, calling me a “witch” and saying: “Women like you get their heads chopped off.”
I caught a bus home.
I was frightened, but didn’t know how to talk about what had happened. I literally had no words for it. But I bore the marks of this experience on my body, which was covered with bruises, due to my silent struggle with my antagonist on his (metal-framed) bunk bed. My mother became alarmed when she discerned the bruises on the backs of my legs, which I had not noticed or thought to disguise. Unable to raise this subject with me on a mother-daughter basis, she asked my older brother to sound me out. Once he conveyed to her the good news that I had not lost my virginity, she calmed down. But she and I never spoke to each other about what had happened. That is how it was in the mid-1960s for girls and women of my upbringing.
This happened over 50 years ago. And I did not speak of it—to any of my close friends or even in psychotherapy--until I wrote my essay for the Star Tribune. Why not?
Fast forward to the 1970s. The Women’s Rights Movement had begun to gather momentum. “Rape” came into public parlance with the publication in 1975 of Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Brownmiller sparked a revolution of understanding about women’s ownership of our own bodies and the importance of mutual consent in sexual relations. By 1979 (the date that Jessica Leeds recalls as the moment of her encounter with Donald Trump in a first class seat on Braniff Airlines), it would have been difficult for her to describe what happened to her as “sexual assault.” Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, but the term “sexual harassment” (though coined in the mid-1970s and incorporated into the civil law in the 1980s) did not achieve prominence until the early 1990s with the testimony of Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Leeds did what most women of my generation did: get away as quickly as possible and try to ‘forget’ what had happened or consider it odd but inconsequential in the context of one’s overall experience. You weren’t raped, so what’s to complain about?
I also did not speak about the kinds of casual derogatory comments about me and women in general that I heard in my early years as an untenured Assistant Professor at a major public university. To whom could I turn? There were no university policies or procedures that I could invoke. As a result, I endured many kinds of verbal harassment (though no one physically groped me, thank goodness!) in my early years at the University of Minnesota, where I began my employment in 1971.
In that era, there were lots of faculty parties, where social interaction was fueled by alcohol. At one of the first of these, I remember being approached by a senior member of my department and having a pleasant conversation—until he abruptly asked: “Do you want to go to bed with me?” I understood that he was inebriated, but felt shocked. He knew that I was married, as he was also. No one in my professional life had ever approached me in this way. I did not feel threatened, nor did he attempt to touch me, but I eased away from him, realizing that we could not have a collegial relationship going forward. Given that I was an untenured Assistant Professor and he a Full Professor, I was aware of the power differential between us. He would vote every two years on my continuing employment, and vote again on my tenure six years hence. I had to figure out how to maintain cordial relations with this man, while keeping my distance from him.
Women are primed—by our upbringing, deference to male authority, concerns about job security, ignorance of appropriate legal means to pursue our claims, not to mention fears of public shaming and retribution—from naming our experiences of verbal and/or sexual violation.
We are at a cultural crossroads on these issues. Thank the Donald for bringing them to the fore in his campaign. As more women feel empowered to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, it will become less acceptable for any man to boast of grabbing a woman’s genitals and claim that it is just “locker room talk.”