My History With Sexual Assault, And Why Trump's Comments Cannot Be Forgiven
The first time it happened, I was 7 years old.
My class and I were coming back from a school trip. Though I don't remember the destination, the journey back home is one I will never forget. Our class of about 15 students was dispersed throughout the car of a Parisian metro. Five classmates and I sat down on the brown seats that directly faced each other on both sides of the car. A stranger sat among us.
I'm not sure if I knew to look away before he did it. But I remember twisting my neck far away from him, looking instead at his reflection in the window as the subway tunnel swallowed us whole. He had lifted his erect penis from the bottom of his shorts, presenting it to each one of us, making sure to turn side to side so we could all see.
A few feet away, beyond the seats, my teacher saw, too. But with embarrassment in her eyes, she said nothing. Though she ushered us out of the metro with urgency in her voice, she never asked us if we were okay. She never told our parents. She never reprimanded the man. She never once brought it up.
We learned a valuable lesson that day: Sexual harassment is something to brush-off, to ignore, and to keep quiet about. And so I went home, in a daze, fevered from shame. And when I saw my mother, I said nothing.
The Paris metro is a wonderful museum of penises. Riding the subway to school every day, I would see so many more I stopped counting them altogether. Men exposed themselves to me, and for a long time I - and everyone else around me - said nothing.
But once, when I was 13, the spell broke. I was riding the metro to school and felt a man's hand on my ass. This had happened many times before, but on this day he went further than any had gone: he slid his hand in-between my pants to feel for my pussy.
When a man grabs you "by the pussy," or anywhere else, he is saying he has a right to you. He is saying that you are a commodity - his commodity. He asserts his power and relishes in the fact that he can abuse it. Who you are, how attractive you are...this has very little to do with it.
I'm sure there is a thrill factor for these offenders as well. Performing a subversive act in public in which victims are almost always silent gives them an even greater incentive to act.
So I yelled, "Are you crazy?" That's all I managed. I questioned his sanity, minimizing the perversity of the action: a hand where it does not belong. A hand on a 13-year-old girl's labia.
Fast forward six years, at a college Halloween party, I felt a similar violation: a man in a gorilla costume grabbed me from behind and thrust my body onto his pelvic area. It lasted all of three seconds, but the fact that he could conceal his identity completely, that he felt compelled to push a woman down his cock because he knew there'd be no repercussions, and because he felt he had a right to my body, has undoubtedly left a bad taste in my mouth and still sends me shivers down my spine.
When I hear people say that because Trump's comments happened a long time ago it shouldn't bear any importance on his current character, I would like them to know:
It's an experience shared by almost all women. Sisters, mothers, lovers, daughters: they too have felt hands taking possession of their bodies, have heard words that linger under their veins and curdled their blood.
For the sake of editorial clarity (and keeping this post at a reasonable length), I had to cut down on the numerous other instances of sexual assault in my life (like the time where a man ran out of his car in the middle of the road and grabbed me because I was ignoring his cat calls, or when a man I thought was being kind hailed a cab for me only to feel me up, or when, just a few weeks ago, a man groped me in the subway again - but this time in NY.)
These instances aren't without damage. They've left their mark and imprint on the way I interact with the world, on the way I feel about my body and value my voice. Ironically, the damages incurred have all being internalized; It has not shaped the way I perceive men, it has only shaped the way I feel about myself: this world does not belong to me.
Donald Trump, however, makes it very clear that he believes the world belongs to him. His comments about women, both in a bus or on a podium, are emblematic of a systemic problem in the way we treat and view women. Comments (and actions) like his send a very hurtful message to both women (your body is not yours) and men (take what you want.)
If we dismiss Donald Trump's comments, we dismiss all victims of sexual harassment and abuse. By refusing to take his words seriously, we are sending the same message to women a school-teacher taught me long ago: your experience is not important. Your trauma is not important.
Men will be men.