A few days ago, I was reading an article in the NYT called Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private. None of it was particularly surprising – his private interactions with women reflect the same deplorable values and convictions as his public interactions – but when I got to this line, I stopped.
“They appeared to be fleeting, unimportant moments to him, but they left lasting impressions on the women who experienced them. “
This sentence captures the essence of so many male-female interactions, and reminded me of an experience I had just this past weekend. I was at a concert with two friends, a guy and a girl, and was having a great time. I was standing with my girl friend, dancing and letting the music wash over me, when a man I had never seen before walked up and put himself directly in front me, uncomfortably close. He looked into my eyes with a sneer on his face, then looked me all the way up and all the way back down. He made me feel like livestock, like a piece of meat. I tried to move out of his gaze/space, but couldn’t – there were too many people around me. He leaned in as if to hug/greet me, and I pulled back.
« Je ne vous connais pas » (I don’t know you) I said. No smile, closed face, dead eyes. I put space in between us.
He nodded as if to say « I know », and leaned in to say something in my ear (the music was too loud to speak normally). This is when I should have walked away, but years of female politeness training made me hold my ground, give him the benefit of the doubt, and listen to what he had to say. He pushed my hair away from my ear, put his hand on the nape of my neck, leaned in and asked me if my belly-button piercing – barely visible between the high waist of my pants and my shirt – was real.
Not that it matters, but I was wearing black high-waisted leggings, flat brown slouchy boots, and a black long-sleeved loose top that just covered the top of my pants – if I raised my arms (as I had been doing as I danced), about an inch of skin, including my belly button, was visible between the two garments.
He fucking touched me. It made me shudder but I gritted my teeth. What was I supposed to do? Become violent (verbally and/or physically) and risk him becoming violent in turn? Aren’t we women taught to just grit our teeth and bear it? We’re taught to be nice, to be polite, to smile and say thank you. We are taught not to “cause a scene.” I didn’t know what else to do. I pulled away.
“Ca ne vous regarde pas” (that is none of your business). No smile, closed face, dead eyes.
He insisted. He leaned in again, brushed my hair again, put his hand on the back of my neck, again. He said I was gorgeous. Said my outfit looked good. I just looked at him. Pulled away again. No smile, closed face, dead eyes. With this expression, I said “thank you” and turned my head away.
I didn’t know what else to do.
As I turned away, I saw my guy friend had returned from the restroom and for a moment, felt relief – surely he would see how uncomfortable I was. Surely he would come over, say something, or at the very least provide his presence as protection/support. I was so relieved to not have to handle the situation on my own. I thought that he would save me.
I was wrong. My friend kept his distance, didn’t interfere, and the realization came crashing down around me: this was once again a question of harassment and the male gaze – my friend didn’t know or couldn’t see how uncomfortable I was. I was alone.
The man looked me over again. Leaned in again. Made some other comment that I don’t remember. He smelled strongly of alcohol. He licked his lips.
“But in many cases there was an unmistakable dynamic at play: Mr. Trump had the power, and the women did not.”
I just stood there and looked at him. Me, with my black belt in Taekwon-do. Me, with my sharp tongue and militant feminist attitude when it comes to women standing up for themselves in the face of male entitlement and harassment. Me, with my rage and my energy and my fire – I just stood there with dead eyes. Finally, he walked away. I breathed again.
Like the interactions with Trump from the NYT article, I’m sure that this man, whoever he is, doesn’t even remember me. He probably doesn’t remember anything at all from our exchange, and why would he? To him, it was nothing.
To me, it was everything. For the next 20 minutes, I barely heard the music. I didn’t really talk to either of my friends. I barely danced, just stood there in the crowd with my arms crossed, stuck inside my head as I replayed the scene over and over again. What could I have done differently? What should I have done differently? I questioned my choice of outfit, wondering if my ensemble – in which I was literally covered in black cloth from feet to neck and down to my wrists, except for the small line of skin sometimes visible at my waist – had somehow invited his attention.
At some point I realized I was in a tailspin and I decided to pull myself the fuck out of there. I tried to talk to myself as I would talk to a friend. This was both a technique to disassociate myself from what had happened, while also allowing me to be nice. I, like most people, am far more understanding and kind with my friends than I am with my own self.
So, I addressed this friend-that-is-myself in my head. I reassured her that the situation was NOT her fault, and told her not to be too hard on herself. Yes, I allowed, she could have challenged the man – pushed him away, caused a scene. But you never know how those things are going to go, especially when the antagonist has been drinking. I told her to stop questioning her outfit – even if she had been dressed up super sexy with high heels, hair did, and skin showing every which way, what he did would still not have been ok.
This man’s behavior was not about flirting, or giving me compliments, or even objectifying me/my body – it was about control. This is also part of why I was so upset: I let him take control not only of the situation, but also of my attitude and mindset (not to mention my personal space). All forms of harassment (from the anonymous appreciative whistle from across the street to rape) are about exerting control, and the important factor here, as in most cases, is the imbalance of power.
“Mr. Trump grew up with an influential role model for how to deal with women: Fred C. Trump, his powerful and unyielding father.
The elder Mr. Trump exerted control no matter how big or small the decision, as Ivana Zelnickova learned over dinner one night in the late 1970s. Her boyfriend, Donald Trump, had invited her to join his siblings and parents at Tavern on the Green, the ornate restaurant in Central Park.
When the waiter came to take orders, Ivana made the mistake of asking for what she wanted. Fred Trump set her straight, she recalled in a previously unpublished interview with Michael D’Antonio, the author of “The Truth About Trump.”
Fred would order steak. Then Donald would order steak. … Everybody order steak. I told the waiter, “I would like to have fish.” O.K., so I could have the fish. And Fred would say to the waiter: “No, Ivana is not going to have a fish. She is going to have a steak.” I said, “No, I’m going to have my fish.” And Donald would come home and say, “Ivana, why would you have a fish instead of a steak?” I say, “Because I’m not going to be told by somebody to have something which I don’t want.’”
Initially, I was so angry with my guy friend for not “saving” me…but took a deep breath about that as well. I realized that my anger towards him was misplaced – it was really anger at myself for “letting it happen,” and anger about my mistaken assumption that he would do something. I couldn’t really blame him: he hadn’t seen the beginning of the interaction and was standing slightly behind me, so couldn’t see my face. Moreover (the feminist inside me said to friend-that-is-myself), it is poor practice to assume that anyone will or should come sweeping in to save you. You gotta deal with shit on your own.
Most importantly, I told myself that I could NOT let this one random asshole and the 5 minutes he took from me ruin my evening. I REFUSED to give him that much importance, and had already given him far more attention than he deserved. So even though I was still upset, I made myself start dancing again. I deliberately uncrossed my arms and let them hang at my sides. I forced myself to laugh at a joke my girl friend made, and then laughed naturally at her next comment. Before I knew it, I was dancing for fun, laughing, and feeling like myself again. The rest of the evening was absolutely wonderful.
And yet here I am, writing about it. Here I am, giving even more of my time – and yours – to this random stranger. But this time, I am doing it consciously and with a purpose.
I want to share this anecdote to show that this is what women deal with. Men look at us, make comments, and invite themselves into our space. They touch us, say things to us, demand our time and our attention and then move on, often without a second thought. Of course these interactions aren’t memorable to them – they mean nothing.
But they mean something to us. And we remember.
A quick word about Donald Trump, and a plea to all of my fellow Americans: Please do not let this man become President.