Lately I’ve been having arguments with guy friends, lovers and all-around good men who I know would never assault a woman, but who somehow still feel the need to defend their right to be men.
“I wouldn’t say I want to ‘grab her by the pussy,’ but I might say I want to smack her ass,” one friend says to me.
Another friend asks, “So, I can’t say, ‘She’s hot’ in the locker room?”
“No, that’s fine.” I say.
He continues: “…I want to spray on her.”
I get that men have dirty, perverted thoughts almost constantly—I’m not making moral judgment on your thoughts, and the world isn’t taking away your man card—but language itself is powerful. I realize the implicit irony that is me writing this for Playboy, but I also find myself in the unique position of having an audience of men; particularly, men who I think know the difference between talking dirty and bragging about assault. Men who understand that the objectification of—and by—both sexes is intrinsic to human attraction, but also that this doesn’t make women objects. Men who appreciate the beauty of women but also take responsibility for raising the discourse, for accepting that sexism is absolutely real and for recognizing that, just like racial slurs, certain kinds of speech about women aren’t acceptable anymore.
I genuinely believe the majority of men don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman. Why should you? For your entire life you’ve had the benefit and the privilege of being a man. You walk to your car at night and don’t have to look over your shoulder. You don’t get grabbed on busses or subways. You don’t get whistled at when you’re walking your dog. You don’t get “accidentally” touched. (The number of times men have brushed my ass while I was working in the restaurant industry numbers in the thousands.)
Saying “all men talk like this” is defending your right to demean women behind closed doors.
Men are victims of assault too, but far less of them than women. Most don’t know what it’s like to have something taken from you—something you’ll never get back. You don’t know what it’s like to feel broken and to feel afraid everywhere you go. To feel dirty. You don’t know the feeling of helplessness as you lie there powerless under a man twice your size. How would you know that? You couldn’t, and I forgive you for that.
When I was in junior high, some popular boys stole my yearbook on the last day of school. They gave it back to me after filling it with graphic drawings of women and even more explicit stories of what they wanted to do to me. I vividly remember not knowing how to feel. On the one hand, I was excited: The popular boys finally paid attention to me. On the other hand, this wasn’t the attention I wanted. I was told, “Boys will be boys.” Even if it did bother me, I had to laugh it off and let it slide.
Later that day, my mom found my yearbook. I’ll never forget the shame I felt when she chastised me saying, “What are you doing that makes these boys think they can talk to you like this?” My mom took the yearbook to the school. Either she or the principal—I don’t remember whose idea it was—made the boys read the yearbook out loud to their dads in front of me. The experience was traumatizing.
After that, everyone in school hated me for getting the popular boys in trouble. (They didn’t even give me a new yearbook.) Even though I didn’t “ask for it,” I was the one who suffered. Not the boys. Not my parents. Not the school. Me. I was grounded. I was ostracized. I was shamed. And I learned a powerful lesson.
I remembered that lesson eight years later when I was drugged and raped by a powerful banker in a condo in downtown Minneapolis. I also remembered my mother saying, after hearing Oprah talk about a new date rape drug, that if any of her girls got raped when they were drinking, they deserved it. I never reported the man. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone until a year later when I was kicking heroin and they asked me in the hospital if I had ever been sexually assaulted.
Today, I still can’t escape the memory of my sexual assault. It’s in my face 24/7. I turn on the news and it’s a never-ending parade of men who represent the kind of man who raped me: rich, entitled and white. When I see the face of this election, I see my rapist. And that is fucking terrifying to me.
Millions of women tweet about their assaults under hashtags like #WhyWomenDontReport and #NotOkay. It’s reached such critical mass that just yesterday, Michelle Obama abandoned her normal stump speech in order to give a voice to the millions of women who have been assaulted and who feel ashamed and frightened.
I’m not asking you to understand; I’m just asking you to try. Instead of getting defensive about what is locker room talk and what isn’t, listen to what women are saying. And I mean really listen. Many of us are struggling right now. Ask the women in your life how they’re doing. Ask us if we’re okay. Stop saying it’s the “PC police” when women stand up to a daily problem of harassment. Instead, try to imagine feeling stalked all the time. Please stop rationalizing or justifying any of it by saying “all men talk like this” because all you’re doing is defending your right to demean women behind closed doors.
To say there isn’t a link between the way men speak in private about women and what happens to women in real life is like saying there isn’t a link between what people say about race behind closed doors and what happens to people of color in real life. Yes, “boys will be boys,” but there comes a time when boys need to grow up and take responsibility for becoming—and raising—decent men.