Dear Straight White Men,
“Telling it like it is” seems to be something many of you prize highly right now. Some of you have gone on record saying you are delighted that one of our Presidential candidates is a real man’s man, not afraid to say whatever he likes. Some of you are unfazed by his “locker-room talk.” Some of you think “rape culture” is a meaningless phrase whipped up by histrionic women just to irritate you. Some of you doubt the concept of white privilege, and many of you bristle at the need for the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the fact that the sanctity of your white male life has never once been in question in what is the United States of America.
Since many of you straight white men seem to enjoy Trump’s approach, I’ll tell it like it is, too—just for you. But first I’ll tell it like it was. And then I’ll tell it like it will always be, for me, a woman. Don’t get your boxer-briefs all in a wad. This is just some locker-room talk for you. You can handle that, right?
Welcome to the women’s locker room:
I was 11 when a nun at my Catholic school demanded that all the boys in the room raise their hands and promise they would never, ever, ever let any girl they knew get an abortion. Every little boy in that room raised his hand while the girls bowed their heads in shame that we did not understand and could not articulate. This was math class.
I was 13 when a new girl arrived from California. I heard she did things with her mouth to groups of my male classmates in the woods near the school. I thought badly of her and steered clear. It did not occur to me to doubt the veracity of this gossip, or wonder about the morality of my male classmates, who happily spread these rumors.
I was 14 when the husband of my mother’s best friend insisted on driving me home after I babysat his children. Once the car was in motion, he slid his hand up the inside of my thigh to the cuff of my shorts. I pressed myself against the car door and wondered if I should open it and jump out at 55 mph, into six lanes of northbound traffic, before his hand went any higher.
I was 16 when a boy laughed in my face, “Oops, I guess I slipped” after penetrating me without my consent. If you go by the biological definition, that was my first time.
I was also 16 when he body-slammed me against a second-floor bannister and held me by my hips as I dangled headfirst over his stairs, taunting me that he could let go, if he wanted to, and watch my skull smash. He thought this was good fun.
I was 17 when a boy I did not know at a teen dance club pulled me down onto his lap and shoved his hand up my skirt, jamming his fingers into my vagina as I struggled to get away from him. We were surrounded by people, who watched the struggle but did nothing. Later I bled.
I was 17 when a boy from a nice Catholic college prep school took my head in his hands, held me down, and forced his penis into my mouth in a parked car. I was afraid of what would happen if I fought back. I had never heard of a girl refusing to do this. We girls—as far as I knew—had to do this, or there would be worse repercussions.
I was 17 when a strange man cut through our yard and scaled the side of our house so he could peer through my bedroom window and watch me getting changed for bed. “Beautiful body,” he hissed through my screen, his mouth and voice and unseen person two feet away from my naked body. I screamed and fell onto my bedroom floor and crawled nude into the hallway, clutching a bed sheet. My father and brother ran outside, where they found huge footprints in the mud. The police estimated size 13, size 14 men’s. The cops said there was nothing they could do, the man could have been watching me for a while, would probably still be watching. To this day, doctors and lovers alike are surprised by my inability to fall asleep at night without medication.
I was 18 when one of my college classmates shoved me against a wall outside and forced his hand into my pants, telling me he “knew I wanted it.” I did not. When a friend began dating him, I warned her. She stopped talking to me.
I was 19 when I told my first college boyfriend I had been date-raped. He recoiled and told me, “Now I feel like I am trying to love a used Jenn.” I wound up comforting him as he cried and trying to assure him I was still good enough and pure enough for him.
I was 21 when a leering man crossed the street at midnight to approach me as I walked my dogs. The dogs were my voice that night, and barked menacingly at him until he crossed the street again and slid into the darkness. I could not speak; I had lost my voice and was trembling violently.
I was 39 when a good friend of the man I was dating told me (on a double date) that he couldn't stop picturing me with a ball gag in my mouth and how nice I would look bent over his kitchen table, or hog-tied. His wife and my date acted like this was perfectly normal dinner conversation. I asked him to stop talking to me. He continued an obscene litany of the things he wanted to do to me, even after the waitress delivered a plate of sweet potato fries for the table to share. I felt sick and left the table to go to the bathroom. The man followed me, then seized me from behind in the middle of the crowded bar. He groped my breasts and violently dry-humped me. When I fought him off—with no help from the bar patrons all around me—I told my date I was leaving and explained why. Despite having witnessed his friend’s revolting sexual threats all evening, my date doubted what I was saying. As we left the bar, my date sighed with great disappointment that I was going to make his friendship “awkward” if I persisted in my claims.
I am 46. I still cannot sleep on the first floor of a building. I cannot sleep next to a window. I cannot shower without the door locked. I look over my shoulder constantly wherever I go. I look under my car before I climb into it at night. I lock my car doors immediately upon entering the vehicle. I am deathly afraid of groups of teenage boys. I shudder when I have to walk through or by groups of men. I hold my breath as I pass men on running or hiking trails, then sprint for my life until they are far from sight, my heart pounding. I have recurring dreams in which I am being chased and assaulted. When I ask for help in these dreams, if I can find my voice in these dreams (sometimes I am mute there too from fear), no help will come. All around me there are dead eyes, observing me coolly, with no pity.
The dead eyes are set in white male faces.
I do not know how to teach my daughters how to feel safe, because I do not know how to feel safe. “Safe” is not a default mode for me. Ever since I have had breasts, I have felt unsafe. That is 36 years of feeling unsafe on a daily basis, if you like numbers.
The people who have sexually assaulted me or threatened me have all been—with the one unknown of the stalker in my bedroom window—straight white men. I have never encountered “a Mexican rapist.” I have never been assaulted in the ladies’ room at Target by a trans person. I have never been groped by a black man or a gay man (or a gay woman, for that matter).
Do you hear me? I am afraid of you. I am afraid of no one but you.
Many of the straight white men I watch on TV during this vile circus act of a political cycle are defending Trump in ways that defy the very logic they claim to adhere to and believe in. Although this letter is for those straight white men, they will not read it. However, if you are a straight white man in the United States, and you are still reading this, I thank you. I’d like you to do more than read this, though: I’d like you to use your voice. I’d like you to amplify mine and those of the women all around me and those of the women across the globe.
My “telling it like it is” is absolutely nothing compared to what some women have to say. Sexual violence is not a one-moment event for the one who survives it. It can’t be “acid-washed” or explained away. The act or acts of sexual abuse and sexual violence live on in the fear that coils around your spine, constricts your heart, and pollutes your dreams at night. This is also how it is.
Straight white men—those of you who realize that Donald Trump denigrated you, too, by welcoming you into his mythical and abhorrent locker room; those of you who are horrified that Donald Trump has insinuated that you will agree with him that boys will be boys; those of you who are repulsed by the concept that any suggested or actual sexual violence should be forgiven with a nod and a wink—I need you to speak. I need you to raise your voice, because no matter how loud I speak, no matter how loud any woman is speaking right now, straight white men are still dominating the discussion.
So I need to you to do something—anything—because I am at a loss for how to be heard in a world where a man can admit on tape to “grabbing pussy” with no thought of consent and still be considered the champion of “regular guys.” Surely a majority of straight white men cannot believe this is truly acceptable behavior for anyone—let alone a Presidential candidate. But now I don’t know, because on and on it goes, with no abatement.
Straight white men who are still reading this, can I tell you something? I feel more unsafe than ever. Do you hear me? I feel more unsafe than ever.
If you speak up, my straight white male friends, you will be heard. If that’s not privilege, I don't know what is. Allow yourself to be humbled by this privilege. Please be aware of this privilege, and use it well. Defy this disgusting “locker room” myth, and teach your sons to do the same. Challenge those who dismiss rape culture loudly and often. Because I can tell you, my voice is not being heard. The women I know are not being heard. My daughters are coming of age in a world full of men who leer and grope and objectify women without shame and without consequences.
Please have the courage to tell it like it is, for someone else. Because this is how it is for me and many, many other women. I hope you take my word for it this time. Donald Trump may be grabbing my pussy, but your humanity is far more at risk.