Then came the hot-mic tape of Trump bragging to Billy Bush that he could get away with “anything” (“grab them by the p—y”) with women because he was a star, and his dismissal of the remarks at last week’s presidential debate as “locker room talk.” Within a week, the number of women saying that Trump had groped them without their consent had reached ten.
The real October surprise, though, may be that these women finally felt safe to speak out.
Or rather, “safe” — because it’s almost never truly safe for a woman to come forward and point a finger at a man for sexual abuse. Safe would mean being believed. Safe would mean consequences for the abuser.
But for women speaking out, that kind of safety is elusive. Women who dare to come forward to report stories of being sexually molested find their stories doubted, their behavior questioned, their credibility impugned. Did they imagine it? Do it for the attention? Were they lying about it (because reporting sexual assault is always the path to riches and respect, right?) Why didn’t they stop it? The litany of responses is familiar by now: You were flirting, weren’t you? What were you wearing? My, that was a short skirt. Wait, were you drinking? Boys will be boys! Hi from the locker room!
This is grotesquely magnified when accusations are leveled at famous or powerful men. Fame and money are presumed as proxies for consent (they’re not), or motivations of gold-digging or fame-seeking. Complainants risk blistering PR counter-offensives, a media blackout and abuse from angry fans who don’t want to believe ill of their hero. Speaking out against someone wealthy means the risk of expensive lawsuits (a Trump staple, as we know). And in the age of social media, all of this is magnified online.
All of this reinforces the prevailing power structures of rape culture and patriarchy: Men are to be respected, believed and obeyed. Women mess with that at their peril. Not only are women expected to receive and submit, but they are expected to laugh off behavior that is otherwise invasive and threatening, to “not make a big deal” about it. But that just shows the normalization of violence against women: A man can grab at you, and you are not allowed to think it’s a big deal. There is a reason that the term “handsy” exists — an almost adorable-sounding term for someone who literally puts his disgusting ape-hands all over you. “Handsy” men commit their offenses in the normal course of business, a slap on the ass or a honk at the boob — c’mon, toots, can’t you take a joke? Don’t make a big deal about it. The world is our locker room!
Trump’s furious response to these allegations followed the usual pattern — the women were liars, discredited, crazy, looking to “regain the spotlight” or “get some free publicity.” Oh and also, as every woman knows, any controversy automatically becomes a referendum on how hot she is. Needless to say, that’s also a Trump staple.
But despite all those reasons to stay silent, demonstrating a particularly galling double standard, Trump still suggested that years-old claims are not legitimate. On Twitter, he wondered why People writer Natasha Stoynoff didn’t mention the allegations 12 years ago. But why would she? Stoynoff says Trump grabbed her while they were alone at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago — so it would have been her word against the notoriously litigious, powerful and ruthless magnate. She covered Trump, so she’d know he didn’t treat antagonists gently. Stoynoff would have every reason to believe she would be doubted at best and smeared beyond professional redemption at worst.
Women know why Stoynoff and the other women coming forward waited until now to do so. Nothing about the Trump story is anything most of us haven’t heard — or experienced — already. When writer Kelly Oxford tweeted about being grabbed and assaulted by men, she invited women to chime in with stories of their own experiences with sexual assault. Oxford got thousands of responses from women who reported men strange and familiar grabbing at their breasts or their crotches, sending hands up shirts and skirts, and abusing positions of power and trust in safe spaces like schools, offices and doctor’s offices.
Vox’s Elizabeth Plank, who originated the hashtag, observed that Trump was not only attacking the women coming forward but very clearly “signaling to others who may come forward” what would happen to them. It’s a memo that women have been getting for years and years, across any conceivable profession.
So don’t wonder why Jessica Leeds waited until she was 74 to say anything about Trump’s “octopus hands” smearing across her body on a plane — not only were uninvited advances the norm in her experience, but “we were taught it was our fault.” And don’t wonder why 22-year-old receptionist Rachel Crooks would have stayed silent and shell-shocked after a polite handshake in an elevator became a tall hulking man pressing into her with his face — the same man whose name was on the building housing her employer. Professional women know that in fields that are still run by men — which is still most of them — a reputation as a troublemaker won’t help you move up.
And yes, I can say this from personal experience. I’ve experienced the hand on the thigh, the sloppy come-on, the leeringly personal question, the jaw-droppingly inappropriate comment — and each time, I did that mental calculus between speaking up or letting it go. (I did not acknowledge the hand on the thigh, and it was quietly removed.) “Letting it go” is not just the path of least resistance — sometimes it means just getting to stay on the path at all.
Powerful men can fire you. They can smear you. They can withhold professional opportunities and freeze you out of key rooms where they are your only way in. If you doubt that, here’s a deep-dive into the alleged harassment history of Roger Ailes. It is a real question for a women in the workplace: Should I stand up for myself and risk everything, or let an awkward moment fade into the past? For many women, the answer is to set our jaw and move forward, and say to ourselves: We have worked hard to get where we are. It is not fair what you did to us, but it is even less fair to let you stop us.
All of these women coming forward — and any who haven’t yet — have had their own deliberations of whether it’s worth it to invite scrutiny, to forever change their Google results. They have jobs and families, and it’s awful hard to go back to business as usual once you’ve been splashed across the front pages in the ugliest and most misogynistic presidential election in history. Trump will almost certainly lose an election he was never in great danger of winning, but he’ll retreat to Trump Tower and his paper billions, maybe launch Trump TV with lots of free earned media. But the women who are in the news now could well see smears, threats and doxxing privacy breaches. There won’t be any new media empires for them.
What there may be, though, is the vindication of speaking up, and finally being heard. And believed.
The burden of proving the unfitness of this candidate — finally and definitively — is in a very real way being shouldered by women. Let’s not kid ourselves that it’s not a burden. Let’s hope that, too, is finally changing. That would be the best surprise of all.
This post has been updated.