I remember the first time I was groped. On the school bus in elementary school, some boy who lived in our apartment complex and touched me in a way that I knew was wrong. He grabbed me, and I punched him in the stomach.
There was that time on the crowded subway, where the man in the too-tight jeans inched closer and closer until his erection jabbed me in the back, at first subtly but then belligerently, and I was young and scared and all I could do was plot my exit when the train doors opened.
There was that time in the Walgreens across the street from the state capitol, while I was shopping for tampons and extra absorbent night maxi-pads in my pajamas, that the man grabbed my ass. And when I shouted, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!” he shrugged and said, “What?! It’s crowded in here.” It was 11pm. We were the only ones in the aisle.
There was that time at the Vatican, as I tried to get off the bus, that the man lunged from a seat across the way just to grab my breast. And that time at State Street Brats where I don’t even remember what was grabbed but I remember our drunk, gallant Southern friend clutching the guy by the throat as fair warning that You. Don’t. Touch. That time in the Karachi airport where an attempt to buy a shawl became a terrifying moment of breast grabbing, and I wasn’t even supposed to be in Pakistan and I was sleep deprived and nervous and I stood there silently because what is happening?! And that time when I was pregnant and my student kept caressing my belly, my arms, my back, in ways so intensely inappropriate. Even after I sat him down to explain as a teachable moment why this was not okay, that you don’t touch without consent. And there were the boys in high school that called me “Big Breasts.” That took their penises out in class and slapped them around under the table and in the cafeteria and never got caught. And when I wanted to say something about it in the school newspaper, my peers told me to stop taking everything so seriously because they were just being boys. That’s just what they do.
And I’ve known other kinds of assaults. Men who were supposed to be my family and my caretakers, who used physical force to assault the women that were supposed to be my protectors and guides. Sometimes I pretended to sleep through it, just so no one would know that I witnessed the abuse being inflicted on us. Sometimes, though, their drunken violence would send us fleeing, out of the house in the middle of the night. Vulnerable inside, vulnerable outside. But always, always under assault.
Today, people are saying, Be kind. Be loving. Be civil. Be respectful. Be decent. And yes, when others go low, go high. Respect human dignity, whatever our political beliefs.
But please. Do not equate standing up against assault with hate. Do not tell me that speaking out against injustice is somehow Disrespectful. Uncivil. Hateful. Do not tell me to love my own abusers. Do not expect me to become a bystander to my own oppression, an accomplice to hate, under the guise of love and decency.
Do you know what it feels like to be under assault? Not metaphorically because your jobs are disappearing or because more and more people are not like you or because the twenty-first century is changing your way of life--but actually, literally, physically under assault? Do you know what it feels like to walk through the world knowing you are unsafe in the most carnal and physical of ways? To have your physical body always, always under assault?
In so many ways, I walk in privilege. In my white skin. In my hetero marriage and perfect little nuclear family. In my high status career, with all the university degrees you can get, from elite institutions. In my perfect English (and strategic bilingualism). But I am put in my place with every grope, ogle, vulgarity, and assault. Because make no mistake: I am telling you the stories of my assaults. Assaults that are not isolated incidents but part of the systemic way that misogyny is enforced. Assaults that are so normalized that we’re not even outraged by them anymore, not even when it’s our next president that is the assailant.
I imagine that this is similar to what it must feel like to be under assault because your skin is black. Because you speak Spanish. Because you are trans. Because you are queer. Because you are Muslim. To know that your physical body—your literal life—is under assault by police, by neighbors, by strangers, by teachers.
What we know, those of us under assault, what we know in our bones and our skin and our breasts is that these are not individual indignities. No, this is how oppression polices us. How patriarchy and white supremacy enforce themselves. When a man grabs a woman by the pussy, as our president-elect has bragged about doing, he’s not just being crass. He is living and enforcing his power. And when we dismiss it as normal, as “locker room talk” or just “saying it like it is,” what we’re really saying is: Yeah, I know. We live in a world where your body and your life are not valued. And I’m okay with that.
My fellow citizens condone my sexual assault. And I guess I’ve always known this, but my many other privileges have shielded me from feeling so directly threatened by my government, by the state, which now laughs at its power to just claim my body in whatever way it wants – by the pussy, by the tongue, by the breasts, by the neck.
So forgive me my horror at the election of a man who brags about sexual assault. A man emboldened by his power, his whiteness, his wealth, his masculinity, so much that he thinks it’s nothing, this assault on our bodies. Nothing more than boys being boys. Nothing more than robbing me of my dignity and my safety and my bodily sovereignty, that most fundamental right.
This man who will be our next president, he’s gloated about his plans to round up Muslims and Latinos. He calls on racism every time he only equates Black America with violence. His rallies are bringing out the ugliest cries of hatred, violence, murder. They’ve called for our deaths, you know, us women and people of color and queers and Muslims and immigrants. He’s joked that we should be beaten, shot, ‘taken care of.’
Please understand: In the most basic of ways, we are under assault.
And these assaults, they are the bedfellows of policy. Policy that wants to question your Americanness. Policy that wants to punish women (but not men, never the men) for abortions. Policy that wants to take away health care and education and financial security. Policy that cements injustice. Policy that assaults more than our bodies: our livelihoods and spirits and communities.
So please don’t tell me to be decent right now. Please don’t tell me I’m being hyperbolic or that I simply need to cast positive energy out into the universe to heal our nation. Some 59 million of my fellow citizens turned a blind eye to hate. Our next president brags about assaulting women. His vice-president targets the LGBTQ community in policy and language. His close advisor boasts about unconstitutional policing tactics. His cheerleaders call Black activists terrorists—and worse. So please. Please. Don’t tell me to be decent right now. Decency was kicked out when hate was let in.
And most of all, please don’t tell me that my defense of fundamental human rights is hateful liberalism. No, not when protecting the dignity of my fellow humans is all that stands between us and, well, whatever awaits us come January. When we ignore hate and patriarchy and racism and xenophobia in the name of decency or appeasement, we know what we get. We’ve been here before. Lynchings. Genocide. Rape as state violence. Mass imprisonment and internment.
So no. I will not smile politely while I am assaulted. I will not be silent about dignity and justice and rights. I will not sit back to wait and see what happens.
I will not be decent in the face of hate.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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