Margaret Jones, 1/4/17
“Hey, pretty mami.” I’m walking back to my apartment dragging a hand cart filled with a new, heavy bag of cat litter, when I pass two drunk men who are stumbling home in the middle of the day and brandishing open bottles to keep the buzz going. My hair isn’t brushed, and I’m wearing a winter coat down to my knees, but that doesn’t keep one of them from calling out to me, or the other from adding, “You are… sex.” Because, I can only assume, in his drunken state he literally could not come up with a single other thought. One almost has to appreciate his directness. While I can ignore them as I pass and joke about it now – insulting their intelligence and their character – it’s important to note that while I walked by them there wasn’t a second in which I wasn’t completely terrified. And when I finally made it to the door of my building and looked back to see one of them crossing the street toward me, I hurried inside, pushed the door closed behind me and ran around the corner to hide, so he would pass without seeing where I had gone.
For that man, I was just a joke; some fun he had while he was drunk, and he probably can’t possibly imagine what harm he might have done. But as a woman who faces this sort of harassment every day, I grow more afraid every time; I wrap my hand around a bottle of pepper spray in my jacket pocket everywhere I walk, because I know what can happen when “harmless fun” turns out to be harmful. When men grab my arm in the street to demand my attention, or grind their genitalia against me on the train, or even when they just openly stare uninterrupted for long, painful minutes at a time, I know that I’m not safe. And as a rape survivor, I sometimes wonder how I’ll ever feel safe again.
About three months ago, our nation was already embroiled in a vicious presidential election when a tape of one of the candidates bragging about assaulting women was leaked. Following the leak, women came forward to accuse him, and we all learned of outstanding allegations that he had raped a thirteen-year-old girl. In an ideal world, this man could never have succeeded in his bid for president, but as we all know that’s not what happened. In the weeks that followed, I listened to many people, including loved ones, describe the alleged sexual assault as “not a real issue.” For the women he assaulted, I very much guarantee that it was a real issue. And for people like me, it was as well.
I was sexually assaulted both as a child and as an adult, so seeing that he assaulted a young girl was particularly painful to me, but not nearly as painful as watching people dismiss it. I can only imagine what it must have been like for those women to watch their abuser run for president and receive the support of half the nation, to have their characters impugned for coming forward and to be bullied into silence. But I can tell you what it was like to watch this as a survivor. I felt as though I was watching my own abusers receive the same immunity from the nation. I felt as though half the country was saying that the things that happened to me were okay with them. And worse than that, I felt as though members of my own family, in whom I had slowly but surely learned to trust, were saying that this was okay with them.
The presidential election of Donald Trump, a likely sex offender, did not make me fearful in any new way. Fear is a normal part of life for a rape survivor; I wake up afraid. But what this election did do was far worse: it took away my hope. Before the moment when I realized he would be president, I thought that we were moving forward as a society. I thought that one day I might live to see a society in which I could truly feel safe, and if not me then maybe my little cousin or her future children. While it’s true that most rape cases are still not addressed properly by our legal system in this country, it’s also true that this is causing more of a general outcry from the public demanding justice. For instance, in the case of Brock Turner judge who failed to sentence him appropriately was forced to stop hearing criminal cases. When the video was leaked of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, I thought it would be similar. I knew that there would truly be no repercussions for a man so wealthy and well-connected, but I thought at the very least the backlash would keep him from becoming president and destroy his reputation. Instead, if anything, it made his supporters defend him more fiercely, and women’s rights suffered as a consequence.
Immediately following the election, there was a rise in hate crimes and verbal harassment. Women were threatened by men who said things like, “Do you want us to grab your pussy?” and, “We’re going to rape you.” We, as a country, made a very clear statement that you could assault women and still be president; that assaulting women would not be held against you in any way; that this would not be a mark on your character. This is the message that many men had reinforced. And more importantly, this is the message that many children learned. Kids went to school and asked their teachers what it meant to “grab someone by the pussy.” And as young girls everywhere were being made aware of the biological difference that in this world often means they are less safe, they simultaneously heard political figures, members of the media, and even their own family members describe their safety as “not a real issue.”
The presidential race itself bore very real consequences regarding what children saw and heard and learned, but the fact that a man like Donald Trump could actually win – could actually be president of our country – drives those lessons home in a way that is significantly more powerful and more dangerous. A man harassed my friend on the way to work the other day, and she called back, “I’m fifteen,” thinking this would make him stop. He answered, “That doesn’t matter now that Trump is president.” My little cousin is fourteen. I look at her and think just how much it should matter. It should have mattered that Donald Trump assaulted grown women, and it should have mattered more that he was accused of raping a young girl, because it matters that I might not be able to keep my cousin safe from the same things that happened to me. It matters that she might grow up believing that her safety isn’t important, and it matters that she’s one of millions of little girls everywhere facing the same reality.
I do believe, because I have to, that we have made progress; that current generations take women’s rights and safety more seriously than the generations preceding. We have made great strides toward revealing the extent of sexism in our society and launching attacks against it, but the events of this presidential race have set us back in a way that is terrifying for me and others like me. On Tuesday, November 8th, many Americans demonstrated that a woman’s safety is still not as important as the reputation of a man. With all of the uncertainty surrounding the future and outcome of Trump’s presidency, one thing is sure: we are about to see the inauguration of a sex offender, and that is not okay.