Somehow or other, this presidential election has become a referendum on whether it’s acceptable that the president of the United States – sometimes called “the leader of the free world” – believes women’s bodies are in the public domain, for him to touch and comment on as he likes.
And the evidence so far is that about a very strong third, or maybe as much as 45% of the American electorate is saying, “Yes. Yes that seems fine.” Or at least, “It doesn’t matter as much as WHICH EMAIL SERVER SOMEONE USES.”
Which is actually pretty encouraging, from my point of view. When faced with the question, right up front like that, the majority of adults in my nation feel a gut-level, “… Ew, no.”
The more stories we hear from women about their (alleged) experiences of groping, harassment, abuse, and assault at the tiny, creepy hands of the Republican nominee, the clearer the picture becomes: For decades, women transitioning into the roles opened to them by second wave feminism experienced and somehow navigated their way through sexual harassment from the (more powerful) men with whom they were working. It was disgusting to the women, and a source of intense distress, but they felt helpless to do anything and at some level they accepted that that’s just what it’s like to be a woman in America. And is HAS been what it’s like to be a woman in America.
Look, this is the foundational belief of patriarchy, that women’s bodies are in the public domain, except possibly if their bodies are privately owned by their father or their husband. Never are women’s bodies simply their own, to live inside safely, without comment or touching.
Well. At a party a year or so ago, a bunch of women sat around talking about the strategies we use to prevent men from approaching us, like wearing a wedding band even if we weren’t married (doesn’t always work), wearing headphones or talking/pretending to talk on the phone (ditto), working (ditto), and more. There is literally no certain way to prevent men from coming up to us and trying to get laid.
The necessity for these prevention strategies isn’t even really because of the men; it’s because we women have been socialized to be “nice.” If a man approaches us when we want to be left alone, social rules dictate that we’re not allowed simply to say, “I’m not interested in talking to you; please go away.” If we say that, we’re the bitch and he’s within his rights to tell us so, and then tell everyone else in the bar. No, if he approaches us, we are socially obligated to offer him bare minimum politeness – a distracted smile and a quick withdrawal of eye contact – and hope that he’ll take the hint.
He won’t take the hint, because he has been gender socialized to take our reluctant acquiescence as encouragement to pursue us further. So he pushes further and we withdraw more, until ultimately we look at our watch, pretend to have an appointment, and apologize for having to leave.
All women want, in these situations, is to withdraw without escalating the situation. Get away, without making him feel so bad that he judges us.
God forbid we make a scene or call it out, because – as we’ve seen in the way women have been treated when they come forward – we know that we will receive the blame for it, not him.
America, though, is changing.
Ever so gradually, Americans are coming to acknowledge that it’s an unfair double standard to say that kind of thing about women’s bodies. We’re able to say, “If a person, anyone, said, ‘I can just grab him by the dick and he doesn’t stop me, because I’m famous,’ that wouldn’t be remotely acceptable.”
Because gradually, we’re being forced to acknowledge that the body of a woman is the body of a human, a person, someone capable, possibly, of being the leader of the free world.
Which is it, America? Are women’s bodies objects in the public domain, for men to do with as they like? Or are they that person’s own possession, and the physical embodiment of their personhood, which is valuable in its own right?
Which is it, America?