By Hannah Brandt
(Trigger Warning for sexual assault and pregnancy loss)
It makes you bite your nails. Or tap your foot. Run your fingers through your hair until you pull it out. A lot of times you cannot sleep. Then you sleep too much, nearly incapable of waking. You are hot and cold simultaneously. You stare at the ceiling as if it will help you. In your dreams, you are always running. Running from it. It always catches you. Grabs you.
The first time I was grabbed, I was not quite five. I was playing in the backyard of our new house, which was not fenced off from the driveway. He was a stranger, portly and elderly. I don’t know how he grabbed me. I remember that he had a drawstring bag of games. I could hear the pieces clinking against each other as he moved. His grip felt like one of those blood pressure monitors at the grocery store that squeezes your arm so tightly you cannot move. Locked into the machine, your arm no longer feels like your own. You become a robot that can only do as you are told.
I learned the power of silence in those moments. Debilitating, demoralizing silence. A flood of screams filled my throat and froze there. It could not escape through my mouth but cascaded out of my mother’s when she found me. It was probably only minutes, but it felt like years before my father heard it and I was safely inside again. It was the beginning of fear. Of terror. It was the beginning of men stealing my voice through intimidation, coercion, and physical force. Attempting to steal my body, my mind. But it was only the beginning.
Every woman I know has a story of such fear. Too many have experienced abduction or attempts, as children, as teenagers, as adults. Almost always by men. At one time or another, every woman I know has been grabbed by a man. In public places like mass transit or walking in a crowd. In private moments, with men we have trusted. Men take liberties with women’s bodies every day. And every day women fear that it will happen to them that day. Every day we have to hide that fear. We repress the memories of being grabbed in order to live.
We tell ourselves lies in order to feel safe. We build carefully constructed cocoons to protect ourselves. Eventually, they fall apart and you remember. You remember the grabbings, the physical ones and the verbal ones. The times that men have attacked you psychologically by talking about your body parts with contempt as they tell you the vulgar things they will do to you and how you will like it. Sometimes the violence is acted out for you so that you will fear it being visited on your body maybe sooner, maybe later. Men tell other men how easy it is for them to grab you, or any woman, as a matter of pride. Those men who do not join in are derided.
Every time a new grabbing happens to you or someone you know or someone you do not, you relive everything you have experienced. This is how trauma works. For women, there are so many triggers in daily life, the world can feel like a minefield. You make mental back-up plans in case you become unsafe somewhere. You are always looking for the exits. It is exhausting and anxiety-inducing. And there are not always escape routes. It is not uncommon to tumble into depression. Especially when so much of the messaging in the world is telling you it is your fault for how you dress, where you go, and who you talk to. You can never be good enough.
This is true every day, stalking us in the background of our lives if not the foreground. When a presidential candidate has said the kind of violence against women that Trump has, it is terrifying. Yes, words that threaten and demean are violence. At a rally, he made veiled threats against his opponent, suggesting gun rights enthusiasts take matters into their hands against her. He has said that women who have abortions should be punished under the law. It was violence when he claimed, “doctors rip babies out of the womb in the ninth month” to perform late-term abortions. This is not only completely false but traumatic for women who have faced excruciating medical decisions due to pregnancy complications. His abhorrent demeaning of people with disabilities in public speeches shows his disrespect for humanity. He claimed that if he shot someone on the street, his supporters would still defend him. That is an immensely violent intimidation tactic.
People of color have been experiencing Trump’s violence for decades. The New York Times revealed the Trump family has a long history of denying African Americans housing in their properties. In 1989, Trump demanded New York reinstate the death penalty to inflict it upon the Central Park Five, black teenagers imprisoned for raping a white woman after police forced their confessions. Trump continues to this day to attack them despite their exonerations. He only recently gave up harassing President Obama about his origin of birth, and therefore authority to be president, simply because he has a Kenyan father and a Muslim middle name.
Just while running for president he accused immigrants coming from Mexico of being rapists and that he would build a wall to keep them out of the U.S. He said he would enact policy to prevent Muslims from entering the country because of their religion. He does not want racism to only be possible under the law, as it is now, but mandatory. At his rallies, he has routinely incited violence against immigrants and Black Lives Matter activists. Women of color face his violence in all directions. If he was a man of color, he would likely have long ago been labeled a sex offender based on his words and the multiple (currently 14) sexual assault accusations against him, including raping a 12-year-old. It is not only what he has said, but what he has done that makes people of color, people with disabilities, and women fearful of the possibility of a Trump presidency.
The War on Women has been waged for years, as has the New Jim Crow. Republican lawmakers have enacted a host of laws that promote violence against women from allowing rapists custody of children born from those rapes to denying women access to the only healthcare in their area by closing Planned Parenthood locations. Hillary Clinton has also traumatized people of color. Singling out inner city youth as “superpredators with no consciences who have to be brought to a heel” is violent rhetoric. Her support for her husband’s 1994 crime bill had devastating consequences: the school-to-prison pipeline, increased harsh penalties for nonviolent crimes, and mass incarceration disproportionately in black and Latino communities. Championing his “welfare reform” helped gut services for the poor. Her policies toward Latin America as Secretary of State, too numerous to name here, involved massive violence. Her lack of compassion for the hundreds of children killed by the Israeli military in Gaza in 2014 is chilling.
Speaking truth to power through your own experiences can be traumatizing. You must weigh whether the fallout of sharing your personal stories to expose the truth is worth it. It drains you either way. If you do not speak out, your voice slowly trickles away, sucked from your throat like Ursula did to the Little Mermaid. It is what the world tries to do to women every day through microaggressions like belittling our work, dismissing our points of view, and holding women to different standards than men. For all the legitimate criticism of Hillary Clinton that must concern us, we cannot buy into the victim-blaming that would have us believe that any woman is responsible for the transgressions of her husband. If Bill Clinton is guilty of sexual assault, Hillary is not responsible for it. Nor can we equate consensual affairs to sexual assault. One is immoral, the other is a crime.
October 10 was Mental Health Day. October was also Domestic Violence Awareness Month and September was Suicide Prevention Month. For too many, these are all connected. After the tape of Donald Trump bragging about how easy it is for him to grab a woman by her genitals, a Canadian author named Kelly Oxford asked women on Twitter to “share your first assault with the hashtag #notokay because they are not just stats.” Tens of thousands of women responded with their experiences. Like many, when I first saw the details as well as those who defended or dismissed them, it was a retraumatization. But this is his shame, not ours. And we must never forget that.