By Julie Parent
“It’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things.”
In response to events in the presidential campaign over that last 10 days, I’ve tried several times to write something resembling a cohesive thought pattern. Instead, I’ve remained anxious and rattled by the reality that one of the main candidates for President of the United States is on tape bragging about committing sexual assault, who later dismisses his remarks as something he’s not proud of but with the implication that they are somehow normal, even expected.
In the days that followed the release of that awful tape, where several women have come forward accusing this candidate of sexual misconduct, I’ve been engulfed by this escalating reality. The impulse to write has become as strong as the apparent impossibility of where to begin. Consumed with inner rants, I’ve struggled to settle on a cogent argument only to discover each new day that another writer has beaten me to it. I’ve seen my mishmash of cries and calls formed into incisive and passionate counters that expose the long-standing culture of misogyny that is both blatant and insidious. With each new article or blog I read, I thought “she stole my idea” but then felt grateful and heartened by the voices of so many other writers putting into words, out in the open, all of the complexity of misogyny.
Of course, these ideas really haven’t been stolen at all. These writings were born from the very experiences of most, if not all, women. Here are samples of a few that stood out for me:
Michelle Obama: “And I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted…. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.
It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.”
Christine Chisholm: “The reality of our culture is that all women—yes, all—know what it feels like to be sexually harassed. Chances are they also know what it feels like to be assaulted. Every woman knows what it is to be talked over, paid less, fetishized….Every woman knows what it is to be called ‘honey.’
As women have been saying for lord knows how long and as they will continue to chant for much longer still: We are not your honey.”
Gretchen Kelly: “We are sexualized before we even understand what that means. We develop into women while our minds are still innocent. We get stares and comments before we can even drive. From adult men. We feel uncomfortable but don’t know what to do, so we go about our lives. We learn at an early age, that to confront every situation that makes us squirm is to possibly put ourselves in danger. We are aware that we are the smaller, physically weaker sex. That boys and men are capable of overpowering us if they choose to. So we minimize and we de-escalate.”
Like all women, I have experienced sexual harassment many times in my life. Including all catcalling, it’s too many times to count. Like many women, I’ve also experienced sexual assault—three incidences that, at the time each occurred, I didn’t fully realize was sexual assault. These were instances in which I was groped by one guy, was forcefully grabbed by another who landed a kiss only (thankfully) on my cheek, and was slapped on the rear by a teenager on a bicycle who came up from behind as I was walking down a lonely, dark street. (Ironically, at that time, I thought I might have been safer to avoid the darker sidewalk.)
I de-escalated the first two instances. In the third, which happened much earlier in my life, I threw a rock at the kid after he cycled past me. It nearly hit his spokes as he scurried away like a little cockroach. I cannot bring myself to call any of these guys men (assuming the high probability that the teen has not managed to become one).
The political events of last week have brought back these experiences in vivid detail. I have not been raped but I know women who have survived that terrible crime. This past week, I read of many women talking of their lists of names associated with their own disturbing, frightening experiences, and I couldn’t help but begin to construct my own.
But then, I hesitated. Why would I want to do that? Do I want to codify these experiences for all time? Even as I write these words here, sharing this information with you, I fear what it will say about me. Am I now a victim in the eyes of others? Am I weak? Someone to be pitied or avoided? Branded with a certain status or label? I second-guess the history: Could I have responded differently at the time? Was the choice to throw that rock too risky (no matter how satisfying)? Was the unconscious choice to de-escalate a surrender to fear, or a wimpy reaction to being blindsided? Did I not have the guts to stand up for myself?
Like all women, I want to forget these experiences, or better, erase them completely. But I can’t. And, I realize now that I have to speak out. I’m a writer in the world, and the world right now is a scary and confusing place. If I don’t say something, this will eat me up inside. If I don’t say something, I won’t be doing my job.
I’m scared because an admitted sexual predator (in addition to the numerous reasons he is unfit for public office) could become our nation’s next president.
I’m confused, and saddened, because so many people are still supporting him: men who are perpetrators of or indifferent to misogyny; but even more tragically, women, who have sold themselves a great emotional and rhetorical bill of goods.
I have to speak out and join the others even though doing so will not completely solve the problem of sexual harassment, violence and predation. We all know this. When women speak out, it’s only sometimes that we’re heard, believed, or taken seriously.
I have to speak out because, you see, misogyny is a man’s problem—manifested at a woman’s expense.
This is not to blame all men for the actions and attitudes of a critical mass of creeps. The majority of men are good, decent human beings. We all know this, too. Men have also spoken out in response to the tape: pro athletes restoring the reputation of “locker room talk;” men, conservative and liberal alike, condemning the candidate’s remarks, attitude, and likely behavior.
But, good men of the world, at the risk of making a very bad pun, we need you to put more skin in the game. Although we love you for it, it’s not enough to agree with us that misogyny is wrong, and then just go about your daily lives. So many of you are here with us with your love, support, understanding, and stronger bodies when need be. But we need each and every one of you to show up. And not just when something happens, or when you are physically with us, but also when we aren’t together. We need each of you to be on the watch, as much as each woman is, for the possibility of sexual harassment or violence. As I hope you all know by now, these incidences and attacks happen far more frequently than you likely ever imagined.
We women, as girls, discover the need to incorporate into our lives a vigilance against this threat to our safety and well-being. Please, walk this walk alongside us. Make it a part of your daily life as well. No matter where you are. No matter what you’re doing. If you hear talk that debases women or girls, and it is safe for you to do so, speak out and condemn it. Deny the creeps the company and validation they so desperately crave. If you see a woman or girl approaching trouble or in it, help her out: whether it’s to stop an assault from happening or only to stand by her and bear witness as she ensures her own safety.
Don’t do it to rescue just us, do it to rescue all people. Do it to stop these creeps from distorting what being a man—what being a human being—is really all about.
It’s on us women to speak up when abuse happens, or take action once we remove ourselves to safety, but it’s up to you, good men, to help shut this crap down every time you see and hear it. There’s nothing normal about misogyny, no matter how frequently it happens, but too many people have accepted this myth of normalcy. Let’s be partners and create a new, better normal together and destroy that myth once and for all.
We’re about to view the third and final debate of 2016 between the two main presidential candidates. Like in the first two debates, let’s watch together how the woman will de-escalate as a president sometimes should, and strike back as a president sometimes must.
Even though there’s so much more to say, I can let myself rest for now and be supported by the words and grit of others. If you haven’t read or heard it already, check out Michelle Obama’s speech from October 14. She radiantly lifts us up. Move on to the pieces by Christine Chisholm and Gretchen Kelly, and let yourself encounter the many others, women and men, who continue to speak out.
In these last few days, I’ve found that being a writer in the world isn’t about saying it all or being the first to speak. It’s about being one voice in a whole choir of voices. In the score of our time, there are moments to pause, and listen, and lean on the voices around you—for sustenance, clarity, and perspective. Immerse yourself in the other voices until it’s your cue. And then, sing!
Julie Parent bio:
Julie Parent spent many years as an actor of classic, contemporary and improvisational theater before turning to writing. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and has taught writing workshops in Vermont and New York City. She was the founding Editor of Clockhouse and now serves as Consulting Editor for the journal (http://www.clockhouse.net).