I was celebrating my 50th birthday with childhood friends at a long table in a Colorado restaurant when I heard her say it: “Did you see the shorts? Half her ass was hanging out. If a girl doesn’t want a man to attack her, she shouldn’t dress like that, that’s all I’m saying.” Such was the conversation happening at the other end of the table, led by a woman I’ve known since we were seventh-graders in a small-town Missouri Catholic school. It was August 2015.
“Did you just say how a girl dresses is license for a grown man to physically attack and rape her?” I said. “You have a 19-year-old daughter.”
I spat this out like the accusation it was, but I got no reply. Her end of the table had been discussing a news report out of Florida where, following the brutal rape of a teenager, store video had captured her reaching for a higher shelf, her shorts rising in kind. Our celebratory table went quiet. We had not seen each other in such a long time. Was I about to ruin a nice dinner over this?
My friend shrugged. “What can you do?” she said. “Men have needs.”
The next week, after the initial shock fell off, her words “men have needs” burrowed in. Did she have a point? The next two years have proved, over and over again, that she did. Maybe the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the election of Donald Trump show that she had simply stated a common, if unspoken, view.
Men take, women receive. Men have needs, we women get what we ask for.
Joan Didion describes a similar schism of thought in “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
“Only Episcopalians ‘take’ communion,” [my husband] had corrected me one last time as we left St. Sulpice,” she wrote. “ … Episcopalians ‘took,’ Catholics ‘received.’ It was, he explained each time, a difference in attitude.”
How could Weinstein keep up his not-so-secret assaults on women for decades? How could a man like Trump, within weeks of the release of his taped admission of sexual assault in the “Access Hollywood” tape, be elected president of the United States, and win the votes of 41 percent of women? What magical sway could a coastal elite billionaire possibly have over women like me? Women who live 10 miles from what’s considered “town” and a good 30 or 40 miles from the big cities of Louisville and Lexington?
A devastating hold. A demeaning difference in attitude. Women’s attitudes.
Here in rural Kentucky, six months after the election, I sat next to a 30-something woman at a party. A grade-school teacher. She did not like Hillary Clinton and voted, she said, for Trump. Turns out she was on a third date, and she and her new beau had not yet gotten around to politics. He was as stunned as I was. And when he and I both took our hard stance, when it started to feel like we were ganging up, I began to feel sorry for her — she was, more than anything, uninformed, it seemed — and I decided to leave them to their now-ruined date. Astoundingly, she had not only not heard of the “Access Hollywood” tape, she had no interest in hearing about it. The election was over.
I wish I could say I found this woman’s lack of information shocking. But the truth is, beyond the confines of coastal news and entertainment, much of white, churchgoing middle America accepts both Trump’s “locker room talk” excuse and his wife’s lackadaisical “boys will be boys” defense. Many of the women I meet here — of all ages — do not follow national news, much less national politics. They also tend to follow their pastors’, or their husbands’, talking points: Clinton can’t be trusted, she thinks she’s a man, she should look at her own husband and her own marriage. I suspect they looked at their own marriages and families, as well. Was Trump any different in his rhetoric from their own husbands, their brothers, their fathers? Their pastors? What can you do? Men have needs.
This week, my social-media pages are flooded with women’s stories of sexual abuse and assault. #MeToo, we scream, many for the first time, online, to strangers and neighbors and old friends alike. We lay bare our shames and secrets.
I told some secrets of my own. Like how the second time I was harassed I was 19. One of my breakfast shift regulars, Mr. biscuits with gravy on the side and one poached egg, kept telling me he was a professional photographer and could he please oh please take my picture. He was both begging and aggressive about it — not unlike Weinstein’s voice on tape — and because I knew he could get me fired, I finally agreed. I borrowed my roommate’s best blouses and scarves and went to the man’s apartment. It was getting dark outside. It was darker inside. I thought I was being brave. He set up lights. He took lots of pictures. He gave me $20. I never saw him again.
How shame-filled. How stupid. It took me 30 years to tell this second story. I may never tell the story of the first time.
But we can tell our #MeToo stories or keep them forever secret, and it won’t matter if we continue to sell out ourselves, our friends and our daughters because of what we wore or what we said. Have we been so-long trained, particularly here in the rural, more conservative, middle of the country, to elevate the needs — even crimes — of men?
Exactly one year ago, I held the biggest of hopes. We were about to elect our first female president. There would be a real shift.
Our country, particularly its women, would never vote for a man who boasted with gluttonous pride, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the p—y. You can do anything.”
And then we did exactly that.
I want to be hopeful. But when I think back on that 50th-birthday dinner, I see how painfully often that it is we women — from our grade-school friends to our neighbors to educated women we meet at parties — who remain dug in. Is this some misplaced sense of flyover country animus, of the us vs. them we’ve dug in on? Because how can we poke fun at Hollywood and the dysfunction of Washington and the so-called coastal elites if we begin to agree with them, to see their stories and struggles in our own?
And yet, are we not all abused, or at a minimum negatively affected, by the Trumps and the Weinsteins of the world? And harder still, how to do we stand our ground alone, in our isolated, rural communities?
What if we treated our needs like rare crystal, placing them on the highest, most prideful and protected shelves? What might it take, as Joan Didion’s husband asked, for us to change our attitude?
A year ago, in the weeks before the presidential election, a dozen women went public with their #MeToo stories, and we ignored them. An admitted “p—y grabber” should have been a dealbreaker everywhere, rural Kentucky included, no matter how much anyone disliked the woman he was running against.
It is we women, not just men, who have to challenge our neighbors and our husbands and our pastors, risk our oldest friendships, and ruin the nice damned dinner for all the right reasons. We have needs, too.