As an academic blogger, I hoped to never write the words Donald Trump, but I need to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the ubiquitous threat that men like Trump and his apologists pose to women’s wellbeing in the workplace and the world. Since the video exploded all over my Twitter feed on Friday evening, I have been troubled by how familiar Trump’s words are to me, and to the many talented women whose work I read on the internet. Kelly Oxford solicited stories of women’s first assaults. The resulting thread is agonizing in its chronicle of casual violence against women and girls.
Anne Helen Petersen pushed back against the tendency of many men to challenged Trump’s definition of “locker room talk” with their own stories of male only spaces where women are respected. As a subtle version of #NotAllMen, this line of argument allows men to ignore their unwillingness to acknowledge or intervene against misogyny.
And Jessica Valenti wrote perhaps the most poignant statement of all in her column in The Guardian. She says the video is “painful to watch not just because Zucker doesn’t know what was said about her, but because this is what women are afraid of. That the men we know, the men we work with – or even love – say horrible things about us. That despite assurances that they respect us and consider us equals, men are secretly winking behind our back. That we are not really people to them, but things.”
In short, Trump’s gleeful, self-aggrandizing admission of sexual assault is not shocking to me. It is all too familiar. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen professional and educational contexts from my childhood to the present where men have said or done horrifically inappropriate things to me. But I want to revisit one instance from my Middle School pre-Algebra class. Avoid that boys will be boys impulse, y’all. Men of all ages move through the world with power and privilege and need to be held accountable for their actions.
I was in seventh grade and taking pre-Algebra. I was relatively new to my school as an army brat who moved every two years or so, but I was starting to make some friends in the class. We had taken a quiz and the teacher was handing it back with a grade. I got a 98% and sheepishly placed the quiz on my desk while my nosy classmates looked over my shoulder. Two boys near me began laughing and asked me if I had given the teacher a blow job to get that grade. This became a running joke for the rest of school year with a growing cadre of participants. In this way, my good math grades became shameful to me. In retrospect, I realize this is the year when I decided I was not good at math, a myth that I kept with me until very recently when I began learning about stereotype threat around STEM for girls. I’m an English professor now, and I teach about stereotype threat in my writing class. We watch Debbie Sterling’s excellent TED Talk about her invention Goldiblox, an engineering tool for girls. It was not until I watched this video that I realized: actually, I am good at math. I finished 2 semesters of College Calculus my senior year of high school. How can I carry around this belief that I can’t succeed in that subject area? I wonder how many women have been sexually harassed out of STEM fields by mediocre men.
I love writing for a blog with a large readership of women scientists, because I get a better sense of what women are up against in male-dominated academic fields. In some ways, I am privileged as a Humanist, but even in a field where the gender balance is more equal, my women colleagues and friends face ubiquitous sexual harassment at their colleges and universities. One of my acquaintances quit her tenure-track job due to sexual harassment. Another had to change dissertation advisors when her chair began relentlessly propositioning her. My point is, Trump’s treatment of women in general, or of Arianne Zucker at her workplace in the video, is not unique to the deplorables. Sexual harassment and assault determine the fields where women pursue their talents, determine our career outcomes, determine our mental and physical health. I hope this election makes academics rethink our comfortable superiority in relation to the mass of Trump supporters and look more deeply at how we got here, and what we are going to do about it.