Let’s just put it out there: a pretty despicable human being has been elected president of the United States. One of the many reactions to this has come from parents, especially mothers, who are asking “What do I tell my daughter?”
Before I share my answer to that question, I want to share with you a story only a few people in my life know but which is agonizingly common amongst women.
I was nine, one year older than my son is right now, when a friend’s older brother molested me. It takes a lot — a lot — of effort for me to let that sentence sit there. To not go back and delete it. To not edit it out of my story.
But it happened. More than once. And I didn’t tell anyone at first.
Probably the first couple times it happened, most people would have termed it “teasing,” especially back then. But anyone who has been intimidated or tricked into a position of helplessness while someone bigger and stronger has obvious control over whether you must stay or you get to leave will tell you that it’s not teasing. It’s at least bullying. Sometimes it’s assault, even if it is not much more than one person’s weight keeping you down on the floor until you promise him you will come back if he let’s you go.
Though I won’t go into details, the last time it happened, no one could deny that it was molestation. And not long after that traumatic incident, I stopped going over to my friend’s house. But I still didn’t tell anyone.
In sixth grade, I finally told someone. A teacher. I wrote out the story in a journal we kept in class. It didn’t have anything to do with the subject matter — science — it was just supposed to be us writing about anything we wanted and this teacher would be the only person who would read it. So I wrote what had happened to me. When I got my journal back the next week, my teacher had written at the top, “I hope you slapped him,” but he didn’t tell anyone. I guess mandatory reporting wasn’t a thing back then?
A couple years later, that teacher was arrested, tried, and convicted of molesting boys in his scout troop.
The one person I had reached out to was also a sex offender.
Though I doubt it was a conscious choice, the way I saw guys from that point on was fundamentally different. Boys became a force to be resisted, fought, proven wrong, and outdone. I would be better, stronger, smarter, more successful than they were. I would become someone to reckon with.
And I did. I beat nearly all of my male classmates in academics. I beat boys at arm wrestling. I bested them in Trivial Pursuit. I hit home runs. I was never afraid of the ball. I didn’t run like a girl, throw like a girl, or do shot put like a girl. I never backed down from an argument. I opened my own jars. I didn’t believe in the phrase “that’s a man’s job.” I wrote feminist poetry. And of the girls in my graduating class, I was voted Most Likely to Be President.
I never felt that same level of competition with other girls. Only boys.
Being an outspoken young lady who carries herself with confidence can draw idiotic sexist comments from a lot of guys. Some of them might even call you a “nasty woman.” But according to more than one adult man in my life, from my father to my teachers, the boys were just “intimidated” by me. When I heard that I would think to myself, “Good. They should be.” And I would go on being me.
Eventually, I told the story of my childhood molestation to my future husband (one boy who was not intimidated by me).
In college, I stopped worrying so much about beating the boys. I was comfortably engaged to my high school sweetheart, excelling in my classes, and relishing every moment spent discussing literature, history, and culture. Unlike this woman, my experience as the victim of unwanted advances or outright assault did not continue throughout my life. It may have something to do with the different circles we ran in or it may be that me “intimidating” guys had a nice scumbag repellent effect. For whatever reason, the worst thing that happened had happened a really long time ago. And when you hear what some women have gone through, my story is mild.
But that doesn’t mean that every time I walked home from a late shift at a diner on campus I wasn’t listening for footsteps behind me and constantly running through self-defense scenarios in my mind. Because I was. No matter how long ago, an experience like that never leaves you. This statement from a New York Times article regarding Donald Trump’s treatment of women rings achingly true: “They appeared to be fleeting, unimportant moments to him, but they left lasting impressions on the women who experienced them.”
It’s obvious to me in hindsight that my early experience as the victim of sexual abuse had a significant role in molding me into the person I am today. A person who, along with every other decent person out there, was disgusted by comments made (and then lamely defended) by the president elect. To some men it might be just “locker room talk” but to women, dismissing such comments is another dismissal of their own personal story of sexual harassment or abuse, another log to throw on the smoldering fire of what’s become known as rape culture, a culture in which men are rarely held accountable and women are blamed for their own life-altering assaults.
Now then, for the answer to the question, “What do I tell my daughter?”
What do I say to her as we leave an administration led by an honorable man who set up the Council on Women and Girls and eloquently explained the problems and solutions to rape culture, and enter the administration of this guy? (For the record, I don’t think he’s actually done what he says there, but parsing all of that out is a little beyond the scope of this essay.)
Well, you could tell her the truth.
Tell her that while the office of the presidency is to be respected, there have been a number of men who held that position who have been less than honorable in their conduct toward women.
Tell her that unfortunately we live in a world where she needs to be vigilant, on guard against people who might want to take advantage of her. That while sexual assault is never her fault, she can reduce her vulnerability by taking smart precautionary measures, like never walking alone at night, learning basic self defense, supporting her female friends, and remaining sober-minded and alert in potentially dangerous situations.
Tell her that women are not exempt from feeding into a culture that devalues and blames women. Sometimes, while they are trying to protect their own hearts, lives, careers, and families, they do and say things that harm other women. They excuse terrible behavior to protect a reputation that, let’s face it, is bordering on unredeemable. (I say bordering, because if the man actually humbled himself and repented, he absolutely could be redeemed. But at this point his “conversion” is obviously a false one because he doesn’t believe he needs forgiveness, doesn’t understand the meaning of the Eucharist, and tries to make up for the bad things he does with works rather than accepting God’s grace.) They may even perpetuate the view of women as sex objects and call it empowerment. They make bad choices, and may regret them later, but they feel like they have to double down to retain their integrity because there are so many ways to make missteps in our judge now, ask questions later culture.
Tell her that nothing, fundamentally, has changed. Before Trump we lived in a dangerous and fallen world. During Trump we live in a dangerous and fallen world. After Trump we will live in a dangerous and fallen world.
And you might even tell her that the kind of people who put sexual pressure on others or who desire to feel power over others, are often the past victims of sexual pressure, harassment, or assault.
Remember the story of the friend’s older brother who molested me? When I finally told my childhood best friend and my sister about it last year, both of them immediately said, “I wonder what happened to him.”
Those twin statements kind of hit me broadside. I had often wondered why he had done what he’d done, especially since he was only four or five years older than me, still a kid himself. But it had never occurred to me that he might be acting out a scenario that had happened to him in the past, only this time he could be the one who felt in control rather than the one who felt powerless. Leave it to my always compassionate best friend and my former Child Protective Services worker sister to immediately see him as more than a perpetrator, to see him as a unique individual who might have his own difficult past.
Remember that teacher who was sent to prison for molesting boys in his scout troop? The boys who had come forward with the allegations were the same age as the boy who molested me. And it’s possible that he was even in that troop. That he had either heard about this teacher’s abuse or that he was a victim himself. I don’t know. We’re not exactly in touch and I can’t ask his sister because sadly she died after an on again, off again struggle with substance abuse.
The last time I talked to him I was a freshman in high school. He had already graduated. I contacted him and asked him if he wanted to come back for the school’s talent show and do a duet with me. It was a carefully considered ploy on my part to get the chance to put the incident, which I had still not told anyone about, to rest. To get it out of my mind. Surprisingly, he agreed. I chose the song: “Always on My Mind.” I chose it because it would make a good duet. I didn’t think any deeper about the title or lyrics for many years.
We got together a few times to practice. We watched a movie. He taught me how to drive his car, a stick shift, even though I was underage and didn’t have a license. We drove out to the Saginaw Bay, to a remote little spot at the end of a very long pier. In telling my sister the story years later, this is where she interrupted and said, “Without even a cell phone?” I stopped to think about it and said, “Yeah, I guess that was really dumb.”
We stood and watched the sun sinking over the bay and I finally got up the nerve. I asked him if he remembered luring me into his bedroom, forcing me down, and laying on top of me. If he remembered cornering me in the tent they had up in their back yard or groping me in their van when we were all playing hide and seek. He did remember. I asked him why he did all of that. All he could say was, “I don’t know.”
And maybe he didn’t. Or maybe deep down he did, but unlike me he was not ready to talk about it, to admit that something may have happened to him.
Again, I don’t know that anything did. But it might have. Because eighth grade boys don’t normally grope fourth grade girls. And that big “maybe” has helped me move past what happened to me twenty-seven years ago. Were I given the opportunity, I’d love to talk to him again and tell him that I think I have finally completely forgiven him. In case you’re wondering, we never did perform that song at the talent show.
I’m not saying all of this to excuse anyone, least of all our president elect, from criminal behavior toward women, lewd comments, or even general skeeviness. Nothing makes me feel more capable of extreme physical violence than talk of sexual assault. If I had 20 minutes, a baseball bat, and the promise of no legal consequences, it would take every ounce of my willpower not to beat Brock Turner to a raw, bloody pulp, and ask for a few shots at that judge as well.
But Donald Trump being president (How? How? How did it come to this?) will not make humanity worse. Or better. Humanity has been broken and sinful since the Fall and anyone who can look at our world and still think that people are basically good is wishing for something that is demonstrably untrue.
We all wish other people were better people. But we only have control over the behavior of one person — ourselves.
So what do you tell your daughter?
Tell her to live in such a way that she intimidates the boys.
When you pair self-confidence with self-control and self-reliance, you get someone like her. And she is a fantastic role model.
Someday, if she can ever be prevailed upon to run, your daughter might even get a chance to vote for her for president. And that would be a very proud day indeed.