This story contains triggers for sexual assault.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s. My parents raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. They even bought me books that said, "A girl can be an astronaut! A girl can be a doctor, just like a boy!" When I became a parent, I read this book to my daughter, and she asked, "Why couldn't a girl be an astronaut or a doctor? What does this book mean?" I put the book in storage, and I took note. I was telling my child she could be as successful as a boy when she had no idea boys had an advantage. The world had changed a lot since I was a girl. "You should go to university. The kind of man you want will want to marry a woman with a deep education." This was advice from my well-meaning mother, and I considered this was possibly true, overlooking the fact that the subtext was: Go to school to get a man. The smart woman gets proposed to by the right man. I was raised on the objectification of women through a dialogue that was positive and even encouraging, by a feminist, no less! Even so, the ideas around appearances were still out there, and I studied them like a PhD candidate. All in all, those boiled down to: Have long hair, be thin with a nice bust and hips. Don't have too many opinions and be a good listener.
'Objectification.' It is a hot, loaded word. Women have been bearing the weight of this behavior forever. But here were Donald Trump and Billy Bush taking objectification to a shocking next step. They were actually joking about sexually assaulting women. Billy's horrendous laughter in response to Donald's remarks put my head in an extreme place. I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response. I have to jump in. I have no choice. Through a pit in my stomach, I tweet, "Grab them by the p—y," Trump says. "You can do anything." And Billy Bush is like, OK!—This is rape culture. This is what we hear & live. My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn't as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again. Billy Bush cackling after Donald Trump says "Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything." Is rape culture. I read these two tweets and wonder if I should delete one. No, they're different. I sigh deeply and look back at the television, watching Donald and Billy Bush now shaking hands with a blond actress. Just minutes before, the conversation between Billy and Trump had turned to this woman, who clearly turned the Donald on. To wit:
TRUMP: Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything. [CROSSTALK AND CHUCKLING] UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Yeah, those legs, all I can see is the legs. TRUMP: Oh, it looks good.
I'm engulfed in a feeling, a sensation. My body is drowning in it. That feeling is white-hot rage.
This was the woman Trump just said "It looks good" about. It. He called a woman IT. You know how when you get bad news, or you are hit with a flash of sudden pain, it feels like time stops? Time stopped. I'm engulfed in a feeling, a sensation. My body is drowning in it. That feeling is white-hot rage.
I've been waiting for today all week. 1. It's Friday. Schwing! 2. I'm going to my friend Penny's house after school. She lives in a suburb, which is exciting. New houses, so fancy! I live in the inner city. Old houses, gross! We are taking the city bus, which is also very exciting. Taking city transportation is the closest I get to feeling like a kid living in New York City. 3. My crush Mike lives close to Penny, and he too will be on the bus. I will get to spy on him. Schwing!
"Penny!! Let's go." I puff clouds from my mouth into the air, grabbing her arm and sprinting for the bus. It's one of the coldest days of the year. Penny zips her backpack and tries to keep up. "We're going to slip. We don't have to run." "I won't slip. I have Sorels on! My mom got them on sale! Hold on to me." I shift my bag off my shoulder and onto the other so Penny has space to grab, a "dad trick" that always works for me. "Hold on tight!" I drag her in her Doc Martens across the ice-covered sidewalk. I pray this is the closest I'll ever get to being in the Iditarod, or a dad. "Shit, Kel, the bus is going to be so full. Let's get the next one." I look to see what Penny is staring at; up ahead of us the number 47 bus has an epic line of middle school kids scrambling to get on. I spot my crush Mike; he's ascending the bus stairs with his white-blond hair, like a wintry Viking child-god. "We can't wait! We will freeze to death!" "We can wait in the Circle K." "Penny, hold on tight. We're getting on that bus. He's on it." "Who?"
"Mike!!" "Kelly, he's dating Gabby. Stop obsessing." "No way. Gabby isn't on the bus. Don't you get it? I'm not missing this opportunity. We are getting on that bus." I have done my hair today, in a ponytail with teased bangs. I even used hair spray, enough hair spray that this Iditarod run is barely causing my vertical hair wall to lose a single strand from its crisp wave. My mom had no idea I'd added the hair spray to our grocery pile. "I guess you're a teenager now," she said when she found me in the bathroom, backcombing my bangs, hair spray bottle sideways in my mouth. It was a small moment, and a minor one, but my mother was acknowledging me becoming a woman. I was trying to look beautiful, on my own, without her help. I dig the Sorels deep into the crusty snow on the edge of the sidewalk and double my pace, keeping Penny and her slippery Docs on the ice of the sidewalk, dragging her behind me. "Hey!!" I hear a girl's voice yell, and I turn so quickly that my cheek is stung by the air. "Hahaha!" Penny laughs at the boy she'd actually run into. He is still trying to stabilize himself on the ice. "I could have cracked my head, bitches." He straightens his jacket, and I turn, laughing, toward Penny. "His voice hasn't even cracked yet, and he's worried about his skull?"
I was not a nice tween. I stop dragging Penny as we reach the crowd of kids piling up into the bus. She nods in agreement. "That guy is the bitch. He's definitely pubeless. He probably has the penis of a seven-year-old." Neither were my friends. "Penny, that's gross." I laugh, of course. She squints her enviable aqua-colored eyes at me. "A half roll of Certs." We walk up the two bus steps to the driver, and I pull my mitten, smelling and tasting of old spit, off with my teeth as I scan the bus for Mike. All I see are faces of people I don't have crushes on. The bus is packed, all the way to the back. With my naked hand, I fumble around in my jacket pocket for my bus change. My glasses fog up. "Please hurry, we have to go!" The bus driver yells at me as I blindly dump all the coins I have into his little money box and grab my ticket.
"Penny, I can't see." She grabs my shoulder as we move down the aisle. Penny has a bus pass and doesn't get yelled at. I need to get a fucking bus pass, they're only, like, $15 for students. My parents would rather pick me up than let me take public transport. They think I'm too young, the pains of being the oldest child. I remove my glasses and stand in a puddle of sandy melted slush on the bus floor, holding the pole. Other students, adults, are all around and pressing into us. I feel alive with my cement bangs, glasses off, on public transport. "I don't see him, Kel. Are you sure he got on the bus? Gum?" Penny offers a piece of gum but it's too close to my face and my eyes cross as someone bumps into my butt. I hope Mike didn't see my eyes cross. I put on an annoyed face to counter the cross-eyed idiot face. I'm bumped into again. "Penny, I can't see shit without my glasses. This bus is too steamy." I put my glasses back on because steamy glasses are less embarrassing than crossed eyes. "Oh, man," she giggles, "Mike is gonna see you and—" And then everything goes silent. Those bumps into my butt were a hand and now that hand is crawling from my butt to my vagina on the outside of my pants. And then, the hand is there. When I was a kid I would jump into the lake and stay underwater, just for the moment when things would go silent. I'd surface, let the yelling, talking, dog barking back into my ears, the sound of my feet as I ran down the hollow wooden boards of our dock. Then I'd hang airborne for a moment before hitting the water again. The loud rush into my ears, then numb silence. I lived for that lonely numb silence in this womblike peace and safety. But now the tiny invisible soft hairs on my arms and neck stand on end because instead of the peace I felt in that silence, it is fear I now feel. I turn and face a small old Indian man sitting on the bench behind me and pulling his hand back from touching me. He smiles. "Kelly. Kelly," Penny says.
I'm out of the water. "Sorry," I say too loudly. Penny is looking toward the back of the bus. "Look. Look. It's Mike. He's with some guy I've never seen before. Do you know who that is?" I see Mike and feel nothing. I shake my head no. Penny keeps talking. The bus keeps driving. Eventually, we get off and walk to her house. We have dinner, we listen to music, we talk about how Lindsay's dad always says he is going to come see her and he never shows up at the airport. The next morning, my mom picks me up. "You have fun?" "Yes." I get home, go upstairs, and throw the hair spray in the garbage.
I SHAKE AS I type. Women: tweet me your first assaults. They aren't just stats. I'll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my "pussy" and smiles at me. I'm 12. I send the tweet and go to the kitchen for water. My throat is so dry. If no one responds, I'll delete that tweet. It was too presumptuous. I'm asking too much. At age twelve I didn't tell anyone about the Indian man on the bus, because I was embarrassed. Why was I embarrassed? Because it's my vagina. Because that's private? Because I was twelve and I was embarrassed and didn't want to ruin my sleepover at Penny's? My water glass is overflowing in the fridge dispenser. I take a long sip. It was the hair. I was trying to look attractive to Mike. I purposefully wanted Mike's attention, I tried to be pretty for him. Maybe my shame was in trying to look pretty. I looked so pretty that a stranger felt he could touch me. "Grab them by the pussy." I shiver all over, feeling sick as I return to my room. The video of Trump and Billy on the bus is on repeat. I decide to delete my tweet, but when I check my responses, there are too many to count. Stories are coming in faster than I can read them. What is happening?
• My stepfather sexually abused me from when I was four–17, no one believed me, I have felt guilty and ashamed my whole life. • Age seven at toy store, bend down to see Barbie, man reaches under my dress. I go home and bury the ribbon I had in my hair. • Saw doctor for eye irritation and he gave me a breast exam. • I'm laying on my stomach reading, my grandfather puts his hand up my shorts. I was ten. • I'm a secretary to priest. After service he says, "I always wondered what you'd look like with lipstick." Kissed me on lips. • My disgusting music teacher tries to kiss me, I was 12. • I was at a party, 15, smoked a lot of weed and passed out. Woke up to man raping me. • Swimming at busy pool, feel someone reach into my bathing suit crotch and grab me. They swim away. • Space needle elevator with my parents, man behind me rubs my ass. I'm 9. • I was on the x-ray table, tech "adjusted" my pubic bone for 10 mins. I'm 14. • Friend's dad pulled on my swimsuit bottom and looked inside the front. I was 9. • I'm five or six. Sitter followed me to bed, covered my mouth and put a finger in my vagina. • Grandma's boyfriend put my hand on his penis. She said I lied and bought him a car. • I was gang raped by a group of professional athletes. Guess it was my fault. I was staying in the same hotel. • I'm 11 in hospital waiting room, man waits for my mom to leave then offers me $50 for a blowjob. • Family doctor asks mom to leave the room. He then tells me I'm old enough to get a breast exam. I'm 13. • Six years old. Sleeping. Friend's dad spoons me and holds me against my will. I beg him to stop, be he says he knows I like it.
Those stories all come in the first ten seconds. Then another four. Another six. This is not stopping. I realize I can't delete my tweet. I have to tweet again.
MY HASHTAG #NOTOKAY IS flashing into my feed over and over again. I check to see what these women are tweeting at me. I can't be the only one reading these at this point. I want everyone to read them. And simultaneously, I want them to disappear. It is awful. It is real.
• At 7, in grocery store, man presses his penis on my neck. This is my second tweet ever. #notokay • Guy interviewing me for a job tries to get my clothes off, I'm 15. #notokay • #notokay in 1941 my bible teacher, my dad's best friend molested me and my sister. Ages 13 & 7. Some things don't change. • Chiropractor rests his clothed genitals on my hand. Scared. No one was around #notokay • 40yo guitar teacher teaches me to strum by stroking my leg. He asks to kiss me. I'm 13 and I don't go back #notokay • He was a friend giving me a ride home. I just wanted to get away. #notokay • I can't send mine without losing my peace. Thank you for doing this. #notokay
• My brother raped me repeatedly for 3 years, told me it was my fault I was born a girl. I was 9. #notokay • Age 7, guy masturbates while watching me play handball. Mom calls cops. I can't remember color of pants. He goes free. #notokay • First time I remember I was 7. Mom's BFF. Pretty sure he was the first. Not the last. #notokay • I don't remember the first time. I just know my mom took me from bio-dad at 8 months after catching him. #notokay • I made anon acct to reply: I was maybe 8, my older cousin put his hand down my pants and underwear and in me. • High school civics teacher would rub the feet of an attractive student in the front row. She had no choice. #notokay • Man on street walks by, moans in my ear "The things I'd do to you." • Dad didn't believe me. #notokay
• Pediatrician neighbor teaches me how to masturbate, tries to get me to do it beside him. I'm 12. • Podiatrist grazes my breasts while examining my foot. Felt violated. Kept quiet. • Just one assault? A pelvic exam in ER. My back was hurt from gymnastics class. • At my gram's funeral my 90 year old uncle says he wants to fuck me. His wife laughs it off. #notokay
I see that my Twitter account is trending in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York. But that simply means that enough people are replying to me that my name is trending. These tweets could still go totally unknown. I have to make sure other people see this. I owe it to everyone who has responded to me. So, I decide to tweet: 1 hr ago I shared my sexual assault & asked if you could do the same. Look at my timeline. 1000s of stories. We must discuss. Not our shame. #notokay
I look down the hall to my girlfriends Karen and Erin, sitting with a few guys from the university hockey team. I decide to join them. Karen is one of my closest friends but I think she secretly hates me. This is because once she was hooking up with this awful athlete, and I knew he was a creep. So, I kept going into the room while they were trying to fuck. I turned on the light. I so unsexually got into bed with them and started talking about the weather. I told her she should leave. I was thrown out repeatedly because I was being a huge asshole, but I kept going back in, drunk, but determined to save her vagina. I remember her telling me something along the lines of "You're just jealous."
And that was partly true, I mean, I wished I could just have sex for the sake of horniness…but I was not there. I needed something more. I needed someone to genuinely like me for me. As a teenage girl with a body that society has deemed attractive, it's very clear you can get a large percentage of guys to have sex with you. That really didn't turn me on.
But tonight, all seems right in the world and between Karen, Erin, and me.
"Erin, I don't think I've peed all night." At the table are the hockey players Jesse, Dylan, Tim, Ross, and Warren. All are regulars, except for Warren. I'd never hung out with Warren. We were friendly with these guys and would flirt back and forth with consent, harmlessly.
"Pee, girl, pee!"
I dance to "99 Luftballons" all the way down the hall to the bathroom, as only a drunk person can. Carefree, cinematically, as if my life is perfect.
I push into a dirty stall and take one of the longest pees of my life. The kind where you think it's over and then suddenly realize there's possibly a second bladder tucked up behind the first one. This is another thing that only seems to happen to drunk people.
"I pull the stall door in and gasp. Warren is standing in the bathroom, facing me. He is six foot five and probably the best-looking human being in this bar. His face is Denzel Washington symmetrical. He looks angry. I open my mouth but I don't know what to say. My fight-or-flight instinct is raging but I'm frozen, unable to react. I know that this situation will not end well, and my mind begins to go to that dark place when he grabs my waist and picks me up. I feel like I'm a child, not sure why an adult is picking me up. Adults don't announce their actions to children, they just do them. What is happening? Are we about to re-create the Johnny and Baby performance from Dirty Dancing?
"Why are you in the girls' bathroom?" I ask mid-air before he lowers me into a wet sink and spreads my legs with his body. His perfect mouth comes close to my face, seething with hate. He is so close, I can feel his sweat and his spit as he begins to speak. "Do you know what rape is?" he hisses into my mouth, grabbing my body. My mind goes blank. A moment later Dylan enters the bathroom.
"DUDE." Though significantly smaller, he grabs Warren's shoulder. Warren puts his tongue in my mouth, then spits on me. Dylan leads him out of the bathroom, but Warren turns and looks back at me, eyes full of rage.
I'm left in a sink. Tasting Warren's Jack and Coke, feeling the damp of people's dirty hands seep through the bottom of my pants. I hop out of the sink, and walk back into the bar to "Tainted Love." Warren and Dylan are nowhere to be seen.
I walk right to Erin and sit on her lap, suddenly sober.
"Eew, you're wet."
"Warren came in the bathroom and asked me if I knew what rape was. He put his tongue in my mouth and then spit on me. Dylan saved me."
Erin's eyes widen, hand to her heart. We would protect each other from this day forward. I was seventeen years old.
Why haven't men stopped talking about us and touching us as though we are their objects?
WHEN I WAS 12 and the old man grabbed my vagina on the bus, I felt shame, because I was truly trying to get the attention of a boy and I innately felt as though putting hair spray in my hair had invited the grabbing. And Warren, well, he was just teaching me a lesson, right? I probably shouldn't drink so much and I definitely shouldn't go to the bathroom alone. Girls who do that could get raped. I've always felt like rape is the invisible vampire I had to run from, if vampires were real and everywhere, all the time. Because I've never been raped, I've always waited for it, wondering where and when. Dark parking lots, elevators, bathrooms, hotel rooms, my front yard, my own bed. I feel it could happen. Anytime. All the time. I'm ready to fight, but I'm almost forty. I'm fucking tired, you guys.
I feel lucky that I've only had a handful of experiences with sexual assault. Of my five closest friends all of us have been assaulted, none of us has been raped. But among our mothers, sisters, friends, there are many who have—on dates, by family members, in the street. This is fucked. And now, a man running to be the President of the United States is making jokes about it. Making jokes about how he can do anything to a woman, he can grab them in the pussy. Now more than 3 million women have been to my Twitter page and shared stories of strangers, relatives, family friends, close friends, peers, doctors, teachers, police officers, touching them. More than 3 million. The media have picked up on this: Vogue, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Boston Globe, everyone is talking about Trump, but everyone is also talking about the unraveling of secrets that I helped create this afternoon. My head is spinning. By the end of this week, more than 40 million people will read my tweets and share stories. I'll have been on the cover of the New York Times and on TV panels with Professor Anita Hill. What is the story of women in this country? The neurotic witch hunts, being treated as property. Being kept in the home to raise children and make our men's lives easier. Being denied access to jobs we deserve or the recognition and equal pay for jobs we've done. In the last 100 years we've won the right to vote. We've become leaders in politics, in industry, in media, in the arts. Why haven't men stopped talking about us and touching us as though we are their objects? When will it ever stop? My cat Gertie jumps on the bed. I hold my hand out to pet her. We approach this moment as equals. I turn off the television. I have to let the world go for now. I don't know when this will all stop. Or when women will truly be equals. Sometimes I feel so alone, and other times I open my mouth or reach out and find that everyone is feeling the same way I'm feeling. And that the world wants to discuss those feelings, no matter how painful. The sharing is maybe the thing that helps us see that the world isn't really against us after all. Maybe.
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From the book WHEN YOU FIND OUT THE WORLD IS AGAINST YOU: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments by Kelly Oxford. Copyright © 2017 by Kelly Oxford. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It's available for purchase here.