This is a confession and a promise.
I’ll start with the confession: I’ve spent the last couple of days in serious judgement of women who are defending the words and actions of Donald Trump.
Here is what I know to be true about judgement. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I find myself judging someone else, it’s really about me. It’s usually my own shame or fear grabbing a megaphone and drowning out everything else. I know that in moments of judgement I have two choices – condemnation or curiosity. And I also know that curiosity is always the right choice. I have a practice in place, and usually, I stick to it. The moment I recognize judgement, I get quiet and ask myself the following questions: Am I ashamed of something in myself that relates to the behavior I am judging? Is there a part of myself that I fear shares the behavior I’m judging? The answer is almost always yes, and the faster I get to curiosity, the faster I can both learn more about my own true self and also get back to the most important job I think I have on this planet- love people, with ever-widening empathy and compassion.
So, I’m ashamed at how long it took me to put this practice in place this time around. I did not choose curiosity. I chose condemnation. I found myself asking questions like “How can any woman support the words and actions of Donald Trump when we know who he is, what he does, what he celebrates, what he condones? How are we not collectively rising up against him? What is wrong with these women?” But I used more colorful language than that in my head. I asked the questions, but I didn’t listen for the answers. Not right away. It took me over 48 hours to get to curiosity. I’m not proud of this.
And when I finally unplugged, got quiet, and listened for answers, here is what I found. Yes, part of my judgement comes from a place of shame. I didn’t know I still carried it. I didn’t know that this shame had become so intrinsically wound into the fibers of my being that it could still hurt me. I thought I had already done this work. Let me explain.
When the #firstassault hashtag started trending on Twitter on Friday night, it gave me life. I had already shared one story of assault on Facebook, though it was not my first assault, and was simultaneously sad and empowered to see so many women sharing theirs as well. I started to think back to my first assault, and when I had a hard time figuring out which one was first I got angry. Angry that my body has been grabbed enough times without my consent that I couldn’t remember when it started. Angry that questions I thought I had long since answered came to the surface, questions like:
Did it count if you were wearing a bikini at a pool when he grabbed you? I mean, you were “strutting around in that tiny number” right?
What about if you wanted to make out with that boy? Did what happened next count as assault when you gave consent for him to kiss you?
Did it count the time you got away? If he attempted the assault but you were fortunate enough to fight back?
I was astonished to find shame still taking residence in my soul.
And that’s when I got very curious. I took a closer look at the words people used to defend Trump’s actions. I’m setting aside the defenses that begin with the statement “But Hillary…” because what I want to talk about here actually has nothing to do with partisan politics. That’s an entirely different topic – one that delves into the over-identification with a political party and cognitive dissonance– and not one I want to get into today. So, if you set aside those responding from a place of deeply-rooted partisan identity, these are actual comments I have seen and heard:
“That’s just locker room talk.”
“ALL men talk like that.”
“Go into any male-dominated space and that’s what you’ll hear.”
“Don’t be so naïve.”
“Grow up. This is the real world.”
“How sad. This was eleven years ago and you can’t forgive him.”
“That’s not sexual assault.”
“I don’t hear them complaining. Most of those women probably liked it.”
And I realized that these defenses speak volumes about how we got here in the first place. I started thinking about the ways that women are conditioned, starting in childhood, to expect this kind of behavior from men.
“Don’t be so naïve. Of course he demanded more from you. That’s what happens when you go into a private room to make out. At least you learned that very young, so you didn’t make that mistake again.”
“How sad. That was eleven years ago and you can’t forgive him. You’re the one with the problem.”
“That’s not sexual assault. If you allow that to happen with one guy, then you like it, and it can’t be assault with another.”
Some of us were explicitly taught these things. Some of us were told that this is just part of being a woman and we might as well get used to it. We were taught that men will grab any part of us they can, and we should always walk in pairs or maybe carry a can of mace to defend ourselves. We were taught that men can’t really control themselves, and we have to keep our guard up. We were handed such low expectations for the behavior of half the population, that when a presidential candidate allows his own daughter to be called a “piece of ass” or discusses grabbing women “by the pussy”, there are women willing to defend that behavior as “boys will be boys.”
And I realized that this conditioning was not only the reason I was angrier at the women defending Trump than the men (my expectations were lower for the men), but that these women received the same conditioning I did. In fact, they likely received worse. I thought back to the homes of friends from my childhood, the ones with garages lined with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editionphotos, the ones where their fathers openly talked about women in terms my father never dared utter in my presence, the homes where those fathers directed sexual comments at me and my friends. I thought about women I know today whose own husbands speak like this in front of them, in front of their children. And I realized that many of the women defending Trump likely grew up hearing or currently live and breathe in a space that contains so much sexism that they have internalized misogyny as normal male behavior.
And that was when I recognized that I had a failure of empathy on my hands.
That was when I remembered the sisterhood. I heard my own words echoed back at me, “I want to have a conversation about what is possible when we refuse to participate in an orchestrated argument with one another and instead reach out and boldly declare that we belong to each other.”
So here is my promise:
If you are a woman who won’t speak out against Trump’s actions, I’m not fighting with you. It is no more your fault that you have deeply internalized unacceptable behavior from men as normal than it is my fault that I still carry shame for sexual assault.
I will not fight with you. I will fight FOR you.
I will fight for you, even if you can’t yet fight for yourself.
I will fight for a better world for you, your daughters and your granddaughters.
I will fight for your sons and for my sons too.
I won’t blame you for something that is larger than you. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault.
I’ve got your back, sister.
And I have a lot of hope. We’ve come a long way in just the past couple of generations. One generation ago, women were silenced about sexual assault, burdened by the idea that they would bring shame to their families because they were attacked. That generation did the best they knew how by raising my generation with lowered expectations for men, even if that contributed to the problem. I have no animosity towards them for teaching us to watch our backs. I know this was both an earnest attempt at keeping women safe, and a psychological shield against the sexism they faced on a daily basis.
But I see something new happening in my generation and the one coming of age now. Women are saying that men can and should be held to a higher standard. That “boys will be boys” promotes rape culture. And strong men are echoing their calls. They are asking to be considered fully human too, not treated like a barely evolved version of a human. Because the truth is- this impacts all of us. Women AND men. None of us are whole until all of us are whole. This is work we will have to do together.
And we have a lot of work to do. There’s no better time to start than now.