When I heard Michelle Obama’s speech on Thursday denouncing Donald Trump’s long history of attacking women, both in word and deed, I agreed wholeheartedly. This election season has been brutal for myriad reasons, but one particular challenge has been navigating the shifting sands of once solid political alliances. Those we once believed would defend us and fight for our values are now openly voicing their contempt for the things and people we care about. When it comes to Donald Trump’s views on how women should be treated, these days I find myself allied with liberals and Democrats more often than some Republicans—members of the party that I’ve supported and been a part of for so many years.
Part of the reason the first lady’s speech touched me so deeply is because when I was 16 years old I was touched inappropriately by my orthodontist. I was in 10th grade and, with my newly minted driver’s license, had driven myself to the office of my orthodontist—I’ll call him Dr. S.—which was a couple towns over from mine. The usual procedure was for the assistants to come in and do the prep work and then leave the room so Dr. S. could come in to take a look and make the adjustments. Dr. S.—I can still remember his voice 36 years later—would often talk on the phone when he was in the room with me. The bulky corded handset would be cradled between his shoulder and his multiple chins as he talked to his bookie or maybe his stockbroker, always working on some kind of deal while he worked on my braces.
One this particular day during my appointment, I was lying prone in the orthodontist’s chair and Dr. S. was chatting on the phone. It was a summer day and I was wearing short shorts, as most teenagers in the 1980s did, and Dr. S., without missing a beat of his phone conversation, casually reached down and started stroking my bare leg. Up and down, slowly, up to the bottom of my short shorts and then back down again. I didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t know what to do, so I just froze, like a deer in the headlights. I had been taught to respect my elders and not to question authority, so I didn’t speak up or tell him to stop. It was very confusing. He kept at it for a few minutes, never speaking a word to me and finally, just got up and left the room, continuing on with his phone conversation and moving on to the patient in the next room. I just walked to the front desk and made my next appointment and left, as if nothing had happened. I was very shy back then and making any kind of a scene was out of the question.
I didn’t tell anyone. Not my parents. Not my best friend. Not anyone. As strange as this may seem to someone who hasn’t been through something like this, I completely put it out of my mind. I didn’t recognize it as an act of sexual aggression then. I didn’t realize that my orthodontist was a pervert who had a thing for teenage girls. (I found out that he eventually ended up in prison for something and was killed by a fellow prisoner.) Years later—just a few years ago—I told my mother what happened that day in the orthodontist’s office and she was, understandably, shocked that I hadn’t told her.
Obviously, what happened to me is very minor compared to what some women have gone through. I wasn’t raped or truly sexually violated. I just had to endure unwanted advances from a gross, much older man as minor child. Nevertheless, it happened and I didn’t like it and it bothers me immensely when anyone tells me or other women that this kind of thing is no big deal.
When Donald Trump’s surrogates go on TV and mock his accusers, saying that no woman would wait all these years to tell her story, I say they need to stop telling women how they should feel and what the right thing is to do after a sexual assault or an unwanted sexual encounter. There is no right way to respond and there are plenty of reasons a woman might choose to keep silent, especially when a powerful man is involved.
I don’t know what the truth is with the women who have come forward to accuse Trump of sexual impropriety. Of course, the timing, on the eve of the last presidential debate, raises questions about political motivations, but the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, revealing Trump’s vile comments about women and his admission that he makes unwanted sexual advances on them, is causing a lot of women, myself included, to remember unwanted advances that we’ve experienced. So while the new accusations could be politically motivated, they could just as easily have been spurred by Trump’s own awful words about women.
Michelle Obama said on Thursday:
This is not something that we can ignore. It’s not something we can just sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election season. Because this was not just a “lewd conversation.” This wasn’t just locker-room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior, and actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us were worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV.
It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen — something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.
You don’t have to be a Democrat or a liberal or a radical feminist to agree with that. And I don’t really care if Michelle likes Kanye’s music, with its disgusting, sexist lyrics or that she thinks Beyonce is a good role model for girls. I’m not talking about the messenger here, I’m talking about the truth of the message. This is not something that we can ignore.
Unfortunately, some people are so blinded by partisan politics—so devoted to their tribe and to winning at all costs—that they’re unable to unequivocally look at Trump’s bad behavior—his repeated disgusting comments about women over the years (not to mention this comments about minorities, those with disabilities, and others)–and say that it’s wrong. Not “This is wrong—but Hillary!“–but simply condemn the words and behavior, period. Vote for him if you want, but at least be able to call the behavior what it is—wicked. (Required disclaimer: Hillary also does wicked things.)
Someday, a few weeks from now, this wretched dumpster fire of an election will be over, and men will still be groping women (and worse) and saying disgusting things about them. And lecherous men like Trump will still be thinking that women are sexual objects, devoid of value unless they’re model-thin and Melania-gorgeous. And all everyone who winked at Trump’s bad behavior will be able to credibly say is, “Well, as long as it’s for the greater good.”