Why Women Stay Quiet About Stories Of Abuse
"How can we trust her?"
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Why now? This is the question that gets asked over and over when charges of sexual assault and harassment are leveled at a person in power. The timing is too perfect to be believed. This is what is said when a woman's accusations against a man are thought to come at a particularly inopportune time for the accused. Why did she stay quiet? This is what people wonder about the women who waited 10 or 20 or 30 years to say something damning about a man in power, not understanding all that can change in 10 or 20 or 30 years, all that can make it possible for a woman to finally use her voice. How can we trust her? This is the burden that is placed upon women who reveal the troubling realities of our society, the dark underside of the machine.
As more and more women are speaking out about the abuse they faced at the hands of Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, these questions are being asked by Trump's supporters, by all those whose first instinct when they hear a woman's story of abuse is to doubt it. This is not an unfamiliar situation. The same things were said and questions were asked of Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment when he was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1991. The same questions were asked of Bill Cosby's accusers when their stories of his systematic, decades-long sexual abuse of women came out to the public's attention. These same questions are asked over and over again because, much in the same way that Donald Trump's specific comments about committing sexual abuse can be dismissed as being mere "banter," so too can women's specific accusations be dismissed as mere "stories," words without any weight. If Trump's words aren't worth anything, if the people in power can say whatever they want and then act like those words are meaningless, then why should the stories of those without power be believed? They're just stories, after all.
And yet. Here is a story: I'm at a company holiday party. I've had too much to drink. Most people have. I find myself talking to a man who works above me, with whom I've worked for many years. I tell him that of all the men I work with at the company, he's the most trustworthy, meaning, I'd trust him completely not to take advantage of the women at the company if they had been drinking too much; he's maybe the only one. He tells me something like, "Well, thanks. But don't you see how awful that is? That I'm the only one you don't think would rape anyone?" And the thing is, at first, I don't see how awful that is. And then, I do. I do see how awful it is, but that doesn't make it any less true.
And anyway, I think back to a time when this same man told me a story about what had happened when I was hired.
It was after my final interview for the position, and he and the two other men who had interviewed me discussed whether or not I should be hired. The same man who, years later, I would grant the high praise of "least likely to assault a coworker" said he wasn't sure about hiring me because he and another man at the company thought I might be trouble for the man who would be my direct boss. So they asked him something like, "Are you sure it's a good idea to hire her? Is she going to be trouble?" This was a question that had nothing to do with my skills or my experience or my disposition or my talent. This was a question that had everything to do with the man who would be my direct boss and his history with getting too close with some of his female subordinates. But my soon-to-be boss said something like, "Oh, yeah. It'll be fine." And I was hired.
Here is my side of the story: I was hired for my first job in a competitive field in which I didn't have much in the way of background or experience, even if I did have—I thought, I hoped—some talent. I worked hard. I was successful. My boss noticed. He rarely seemed to notice much of anything, but he noticed my work, he laughed at my jokes, he listened to my stories at the weekly department meeting at a local bar. I didn't think much about it. Not at first. I started thinking about it the time I rode a few stops on the subway with him on a rare night when we happened to be going in the same direction. I thought about it because hours after I had waved goodbye on the A train, I got a text from him saying what a delightful subway companion I was. I showed the text to the friend I'd gone to meet, a man, who said, "Oh, shit. That's trouble." But I denied that it was trouble. Because that would mean that I was trouble. I couldn't afford to be trouble. I needed this job. I wanted this job. I wanted what the job meant for me, for my future. So I ignored what the text meant for the moment.
But I knew there was trouble. I knew it more and more every week during those meetings when everyone would be drinking and talking, and he was always looking at me. I knew it, but I couldn't say anything. Who would I say something to? It was a small company. Everyone at the top was a man. All of the men had known each other for a decade. I had worked there for a few months. And nothing had happened. Not really. So I didn't do anything. I did my work, and I talked a lot and I laughed a lot and I drank a lot—more regularly than I had at any other point in my life and excused it as being part of the job—and I just kept going.
Things changed. Eventually, something happened. It was after our holiday party, and everyone was drunk and at a bar and one woman kept telling one man about the joys of playing topless golf. Everything felt warm and stupid, and one by one everyone started leaving until it was just me and my boss and one other guy, slumped over the bar, half-conscious. As I started to get ready to leave, I pulled at the guy at the bar and said, "C'mon, I'm taking you to a cab." And then I felt my boss's hand on my leg, high up on my leg. And I froze and unfroze and just kept going. I said, "We have to get him into a car." Looking back, I wish I'd never said "we." Looking back, I think that the moment I said "we," it gave my boss some sort of permission. Looking back, I know this isn't true, but, looking back, all I can think of is all the times and all the ways I could have stopped this in its tracks and I didn't. I just kept going.
When he apologized the next day, I told him he didn't have to do that; I told him I just wanted everything to be normal. This was true. I did want everything to be normal. I'd spent the night before lying on my floor and crying into my fist, terrified at how this would affect me, terrified I'd somehow lose my job. And also, of course, I was terrified I'd lose his attention, terrified I'd long benefitted from how he felt about me, and that if it were to be taken away, I'd have nothing because I was nothing. I was terrified that all that I was, consisted of what he saw in me. And so I accepted his apology and made jokes about the coworker who'd had to be poured into a cab, who had been so drunk that he didn't even know where he lived anymore. My boss made jokes too. Like the time, not long after that, when it was just me and him at the end of another drink-fueled meeting, and he asked, "Do you ever say 'no' to anything?" And then he laughed.
I stayed quiet for a long time. The longer I stayed quiet, the longer I knew myself to be complicit in it. And here's the funny thing about that: I grew to like being complicit in it. I thought it gave me some control. I thought it took away some of his power. I knew I'd never be the perfect victim anyway, so the best thing I could do was try not to be a victim at all.
A fundamental part of abuse that frequently gets forgotten, that so often gets brushed to the side, is the way the abuser makes the abused complicit in his actions. He can do this in many ways.
Before he even does anything, he can put his finger to his lips and whisper "shh." And you obey. You stay quiet.
In the middle of the abuse, he will act like he's doing nothing wrong. It's gaslighting at its finest. He does things while other people are a few steps away. The cognitive dissonance is astounding. The brain breaks thinking about it. You break.
And after he does everything, he asks your forgiveness. You have always been told that you should accept apologies. So you do. You accept it, and you bury it, and you think that will help you forget it, but you never forget it.
In an interview he gave in 2013, Donald Trump Jr. spoke about office harassment and said "If you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, then you don’t belong in the workforce. Like, you should go maybe teach kindergarten." Donald Trump himself has said, when asked what he thought his daughter Ivanka should do if she ever faced sexual harassment in the workplace, "I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case."
There is no doubt that untold numbers of professional women have internalized this type of thinking, this idea that they can handle anything thrown at them, that they are strong enough to do that. I know I felt that way. I remember talking about what I'd dealt with years later, and saying that I was glad it had happened to me and not someone younger, weaker, less equipped to handle it.
I was not equipped to handle it.
Why speak now? Women speak now because, after years and years of being told that their stories don't matter, they are finally being told that they do. Whether it's New York Magazine's feature telling the stories of 35 women who were abused by Bill Cosby or a renewed assessment of the Anita Hill accusations 25 years after the fact, the power of women's stories is clearer than ever before.
The timing is too perfect to be believed. The timing is just perfect enough. The reason these accusations about Trump are surfacing now is because he poses an imminent threat to all the people in this country, and beyond. It is likely that these stories would not have otherwise come out. But that's not because they're untrue. It's because the sacrifice the victims must make in order to speak out is so great that it must be worth something bigger than the untold additional suffering they will face.
How can you trust her? The thing about the Trump accusers is that you don't even need to trust them. You can trust that Trump's own words were true, when he himself talked about assaulting women, when he himself said it was okay to call his daughter a "piece of ass," when he himself talked about one day dating a 10-year-old he'd just met. You can trust that those words are true and then listen to the stories of his accusers. Those stories align seamlessly. And then listen to countless other women share their stories of sexual assault, and understand that these stories are one and the same; they are not aberrations; they are the way of the world.
Why did she, why did we stay quiet? We stay quiet because there is no "we." There is no real network of support, no comforting societal monolith to protect us from those whose power is destabilized from our accusations. Rather, it's the illusion of "we" which makes it possible for those in power to question our voices, once those voices are finally heard. "We" comprises too many types of people with too many types of experiences and too many different responses to being abused to make for some tidy narrative which will make everyone happy. But the silence has broken, the quiet has ended; now is the time for the stories to be heard.