We were new study partners in a college psychology class. That afternoon we had tried to go to the campus library to prepare for a test, but it was crowded, so he suggested his apartment. It was a short drive away, he said. I agreed to meet him there.
When I arrived, I plopped down on his couch and waited for him to get off the phone. He hung up and asked if I was cold. I said yes, expecting him to shut the sliding glass door behind me that was cracked open. Instead, he wrapped a blanket around me, pinning my arms to my sides while he forced me onto the couch, trapping me under the weight of his body. I fought. And the more I fought, the more he hurt me, tearing at my most private part. When he moved off me for a split second, I ran for the door. I was a few feet from it when he caught me and pinned me against the wall. I kneed him and got away.
The next morning, he called to say he was sorry things had “gotten out of hand.” But he couldn’t help himself, he said. I just looked so good, he said. And then he asked if he could take me out for a steak dinner to make up for it.
I’ve never written publicly about my story before. But in the more than two decades since it happened, I’ve told it often to other women. And they tell me theirs. We all have these stories.
At Sunday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump was asked three times by moderator Anderson Cooper if he had ever kissed or groped a woman without her consent after a now-infamous tape surfaced in which the Republican nominee bragged that, when you’re a star, “you can do anything” to women—you can “grab them by the pussy.” Eventually, Trump told Cooper, “No, I have not.” And yet, this week, a growing list of women have come forward to tell their stories of being assaulted by the former reality TV show host.
Trump’s accusers range from a now 74-year-old woman, who said she had to change seats on a plane more than three decades ago after he grabbed her breasts, to contestants as young as 15 years old in the Miss Teen USA pageant, who said he walked in on them naked. Trump himself admitted to doing the same to the women in the Miss Universe pageant. “I sort of get away with things like that,” he told Howard Stern in 2005.
But does he even recognize any of it as sexual assault? Did my study partner recognize his attack as assault? When Trump’s tape became public last week, it was widely described as “lewd.” But it wasn’t lewd—it was violent. “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Trump said. “You can do anything.” Except you really can’t. For too long, men have felt entitled to steal women’s bodily autonomy—to claim what they like for the taking. Enough is enough.
That’s what hundreds of thousands of women across social media, in their homes, at work and everywhere are rising up to say to men like Trump. “Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump,” wrote Lindy West in a New York Times op-ed. When author Kelly Oxford invited women to tweet about their sexual assaults with the hashtag #notokay, she received more than 1 million responses. Public figures like actress Amber Tamblyn are disclosing that they were attacked. These may be our individual, private stories, but sexual assault is not an individual act. Collectively, it feeds a barbaric culture where rape has been dismissed as “guys being guys” for too long.
On Thursday, even First Lady Michelle Obama publicly denounced Trump’s abuse of women, declaring, “This is not how adults behave, this is not how decent human beings behave, and it’s certainly not how someone who wants to be president of the United States behaves.” Trump’s demeaning remarks, she said, recreate “that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt.”
Sexual assault is everywhere. Roughly one out of every five women experiences some form of sexual assault in her lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number is probably much higher, given how few attacks are reported. I didn’t report mine. Instead, I went back to my dorm and took a long shower and tried to forget what had happened. I had a busy life at school and my job at a halfway house where I worked with children and teens, many of whom had been sexually abused themselves. After seeking therapy weeks later, I asked about pressing charges and was told I’d lose because, at that point, it would have merely been my word against his.
It still is. Except now I’m using my words to speak up and say loudly what I couldn’t say then: No. Men like Trump and my attacker have been permitted to think they can just take whatever they want. They can’t.
Trump has tried to say he’s only talked about mauling women while others have actually done it. But when he got off that Access Hollywood bus with Billy Bush and greeted the soap opera actress with whom he’d be performing a cameo, he immediately moved in and kissed her. “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Donald Trump’s so-called “locker room talk” is re-traumatizing countless women who know that his words are not as harmless as he claims. Calls to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s confidential hotline have surged in recent days, the organization has reported. This “talk” leads to a rape culture where boys grow up with a fundamental ignorance toward consent. They lead to a society that spits out men like former Stanford student Brock Turner, who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Turner spent only three months in jail for his crime—time his father lamented as “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”
Back when I was a college student, I stopped going to that psychology class after I was attacked. I wish now I’d told the professor about my ordeal. Instead, I ended up getting a D, all the while wondering if what happened was somehow my fault. Or if it really was so minor that it could be erased with a steak dinner.
The assault caused me to doubt myself. But eventually, the Resident Assistant in my dorm asked me how I was doing one day—and I told her. And she believed me. In her, I found the anger that I hadn’t been able to find for myself.
I don’t live with that anger on a daily basis anymore. Nor the fear I felt for a long time. I’ve had a lot of therapy and support from amazing men and women. But in times like this, I can tap back into that rage.
For a long time, I was ashamed of what happened. I was ashamed for going still and quiet in the middle of the assault in order to protect myself from getting hurt even worse. But I’m no longer ashamed. And I’m no longer still and quiet.