My sexual assault, and yours: Every woman’s story
I remember staring at his scotch glass.
The swirling, caramel-colored liquid caught the dim light of the hotel lobby, reflected it back to me. The light was a relief from the glare of his dark eyes, his black hair, the lecherous look on his face.
I’d agreed to meet him, an accomplished journalist from Israel, at his hotel around 10 p.m. He was in the United States only for 48 hours, and told me he was completely booked during the daytime. I believed him. Back then, the book he’d written was among several titles having an impact on the Jewish conversation, and many local community leaders wanted to meet with him. If I was going to be a part of this conversation, this was my opportunity.
But almost as soon as I arrived and placed my recorder on the table between us, he put our interview on hold.
“First,” he said, “I want to get to know you better.” He asked me a series of personal questions — about my Jewish background, my family, my personal life; he wanted to know if the man with whom I’d attended his book event the night before was my boyfriend. His questions made me uncomfortable, but they weren’t all that surprising, actually — I’ve learned that if you’re Jewish and younger than 35, your relationship status is typically the first thing another Jew will ask about. Besides, the man was married, with children, and a public figure. I figured I was safe. But after I answered one of his questions in a way that moved him, he lurched at me like a barnyard animal, grabbing the back of my head, pulling me toward him.
I turned my face to the left and bowed my head to avoid his mouth. “I don’t understand,” I told him. “Last night, in front of everybody, you spoke so lovingly about your wife.”
“We have an arrangement,” he responded.
“Don’t you have children?” I asked, trying to wedge conversation in front of contact.
He looked at me with a sly smile. “Yes,” he said, “and I’m not done yet. … ”
Even in the midst of such a profoundly awkward situation, I remember thinking that this was the first time any man had made a pass at me by suggesting we procreate.
“Let’s go up to my room,” he suggested. “Just for a minute.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.
“We don’t have to have sex,” he countered. “I just want to give you a hug.”
The fact that the suggestion we’d have “sex” was even uttered during a professional meeting — by another journalist, no less — is insane. I remember how ridiculous his pickup line sounded, even as it filled me with dread. Even as he continued to pull and paw at me.
Confused, I found myself feeling paralyzed. Earlier that day, this man had been someone I deeply respected. I’d read his book voraciously and underlined passages; I’d even read every review, and recommended the book to friends. And this was supposed to have been a really important interview — one I was lucky to get. My editors were expecting something good. Could I just walk away? From someone so prominent?
Today, it would be an easy choice. But at the time, several years ago, I felt beholden to the man in power.
Once he suggested his hotel room, though, my decision was clear: I had to get out of there. Still trying to respect his distinguished reputation, I was — unbelievably, in hindsight — concerned about making a polite exit. And there was still the matter of the interview, which he continued to dangle in front of me — if I really wanted it, I’d have to come back again the next night.
I remember putting my jacket back on, because I wanted a barrier between him and me. I felt naked, though I was fully, conservatively clothed — a white blouse and black pants. And even though I was in a hotel lobby surrounded by other people, I felt unsafe. I excused myself to use the restroom.
Once I was alone, I considered running. I knew that if I stayed, there would be more come-ons, more pawing, more propositions. (He was going to be spending a lot of time in the States, he’d told me, and wouldn’t it be fun if I met him in New York as his mistress?) If I left, I would forfeit the interview, and I worried about explaining to my editors why I couldn’t deliver.
But the restroom gave me respite to think. And the space from his physical domination emboldened me.
I walked back to the bar, jacket zipped to my neck, purse in hand and announced that I had to leave.
“Let me walk you to your car,” he said.
“No, that’s OK. Thank you,” I said, stopping at the hotel entrance.
He asked if he could hug me goodbye. And I let him, hoping that a farewell would signal him to go. I’ll spare you the details of that hug, but suffice it to say, he was undeterred.
“I’ll wait with you at the valet,” he said.
Only, I hadn’t used the valet. I’d parked on the street, around the corner, and it was dark out. He insisted on walking me to my car, despite my protestations. I have traveled the world alone without fear, yet this, not far from home, was one of a few moments in my life that I’ve felt both threatened and powerless. The irony was overwhelming: walking alone to my car at night seemed safer than walking with this escort. But what should I have done? All I could think was: “Get away from me, get away from me, get away from me.” I also thought: “Don’t insult him. Don’t embarrass him. He’s important.”
In the end, I guess, I consider myself “lucky.” Very, very “lucky.” Because although I was groped and grabbed and pulled — sexually assaulted — I was not raped or otherwise harmed. Many women do not emerge from such situations still whole. Nevertheless, none of this feels like a gift.
This also wasn’t the first time a man I went to interview has treated me like I was a loaf of warm bread. In fact, my first notable article described another instance of sexual assault on the job — when film director Brett Ratner molested me during my first big Hollywood interview.
In my nearly 10 years in Jewish journalism, I have felt physically vulnerable in professional situations a handful of times. I’ve been demeaned, objectified and infantilized more times than I can count — because I am a woman.
But my story is not unique. Every woman — probably every single woman in this world — knows the feeling I felt walking to my car at night with a man who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Most women — and even some men — have stories of sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation over the course of their lifetime. Sometimes it happens in private, sometimes in the light of day. But almost always, these stories remain secret because the consequences of coming forward to expose them often far outweigh the benefits.
Thanks to Donald Trump, that appears to be changing.
The public exposure of the Republican presidential nominee’s lewd comments to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” awoke a sleeping giant in our culture and put sexual assault at the forefront of the national conversation.
“I think it’s crazy fantastic,” Oscar-nominated filmmaker and activist Amy Ziering told me in an interview.
Ziering and her partner, Kirby Dick, were nominated for an Academy Award for their 2012 documentary, “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the U.S. military. Because of the overwhelming response to that film, which screened at the highest levels of the U.S. government, they followed up with the 2015 doc “The Hunting Ground,” about the scourge of sexual violence on college campuses. Despite some criticism of the second film, Ziering and Dick’s work has been widely credited for bringing sexual assault into the national spotlight. But even Ziering is stunned that this topic would become so central in a presidential campaign.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that the essential talking point on the national platform for both parties would be sexual assault,” she told me. “And that the two [campaigns would be] duking it out over which team harbors the worse predator. That’s ironically an odd gift that Donald has given the conversation. ‘Make America talk rape again’ should be his slogan.”
Though Trump has dismissed his comments as “locker room talk,” Ziering said such “talk” is still harmful.
“Studies show that actually words lead to incidents of violence,” she said. “When you have cultures that turn a blind eye to derogatory discourse about any kind of ‘other,’ you definitely see a remarkable uptick in violent crimes against the people being disparaged.
“Why are we so offended about using certain terms to describe Black people? Because they correlated to violent acts. We shouldn’t look at these words as so innocent.”
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Ziering noted that Hitler’s rhetoric — in his writings and speeches — paved the way for policies of extermination.
“We saw this all through Nazi Germany,” Ziering said. “Hitler was very clever in rhetorically renaming Jewish people. It was a campaign over several years, but when you did that, and equated Jews with rats and vermin over and over again, then starting to do things against them was normalized.”
Seth Meyers, the host of “Late Night” on NBC, has astutely connected Trump’s comments with the behavior his alleged victims describe.
“There’s very good reason to believe [Trump] did what he’s accused of,” Meyers said during the Oct. 13 episode of his signature segment, “A Closer Look.” “Why? Because an irrefutable, inside source told us so: Donald Trump.”
Meyers played the now-legendary recording of Trump saying, “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
“Donald Trump is his own Deep Throat,” Meyers joked, recalling the secret source behind the Nixon Watergate scandal. Except, Meyers said, “He’s Creep Throat.”
Trump’s vile comments came during a campaign full of insults and invective aimed at pretty much everyone: Muslims, Mexicans, Latinos, women, Jews and African-Americans. Trump’s so-called “locker room talk” could very well destroy his bid for the presidency. But what Trump has unleashed is much bigger than one leaked tape. If we’re honest with ourselves, this moment may be a cultural watershed: Trump stands for millions of people — male and female — who think it’s normal to treat women like “a piece of a–,” which is what Trump told radio host Howard Stern was OK to call Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. What’s worse: He meant it as a compliment.
More than a dozen women have now come forward accusing Trump of “inappropriate touching.” But he is hardly alone in perpetrating these everyday, casual attacks on women. With his behavior in the public spotlight, many more women have cause to talk about our experiences with other equally presumptuous, aggressive and invasive men. It is finally possible for us to fully recognize, as a nation, just how much sexual assault is a normalized behavior in our culture.
Violence against women is an endemic social problem worldwide, especially in developing nations, but it also is present in post-feminist Western culture, which is far from truly “liberated.” Women may have won far more civil rights in the Western world than in most developing countries, and especially the Middle East, but insidious and deeply ingrained ideas about women and their bodies persist even in enlightened 21st-century democracies. So much so that some have gone so far as to declare ours a “rape culture.”
Rape culture “is a society where women are objectified and belong to men, and their bodies belong to men,” Canadian author Kelly Oxford told CBS news. “And it’s ingrained in all of us.”
Oxford made headlines when, after hearing Trump’s comments, she invited women to share their stories of sexual assault on her Twitter feed, launching the conversation with her own experiences. Within days, she was receiving up to 50 responses per minute, many of them explicit, under the hashtag #notokay. An early estimate by The New York Times said some 27 million people had participated or visited her page.
Such aggressive attacks also occur in the Jewish community. But we tend not to hear about them because it’s risky for women to come forward — and not just because they may lose jobs, social standing or even the opportunity to convert.
“I was waiting on a big gift of a million dollars or more from a top adviser to a major Jewish philanthropist,” a Los Angeles communal professional who once ran a nonprofit told me. She asked for anonymity for professional reasons. “I couldn’t nail the guy down to send the money, so finally I had to have an in-person meeting with him.”
This seasoned leader traveled from Los Angeles to New York to have dinner with the adviser, and she invited along another female colleague. While they waited at the restaurant, “we got a call that he’s not coming; he didn’t feel well, and could we please meet with him at his apartment?”
They obliged, and after some time, the adviser asked the woman to stay a while longer, to go over some business. “Then he asked me if I would sleep over, because he wasn’t feeling well. And I said, ‘No.’ Then he said, if I didn’t sleep over, he would not give me the million dollars — he threatened the gift.”
This woman also found refuge in a bathroom. “I sat on the toilet seat, thinking, ‘Can this possibly be happening to me?’ I couldn’t believe it. I was so stunned. My face was white. I was shaking. I was spinning. In the 21st century, how is this happening to me? I thought these things only happened in the movies.”
As I write this story, it is infuriating to me that I still feel I can’t “name” the man who did this to her. Nor the one who helped himself to my body. It is infuriating — and deeply unfair — that women cannot tell their full stories publicly without fear of reprisal. We not only know the abuse, we also know the subsequent blame that would be sure to follow outing the perpetrators.
When I was asked to write this story, I called a trusted friend. “Don’t out the perpetrator,” was the first thing my friend advised me. “It will probably damage him, but it will definitely damage you.”
Some people will read this story and find fault in me: I shouldn’t have gone to meet him at night; I was naïve; I must have dressed provocatively; I must have flirted. And indeed, when I shared this story with friends and colleagues after it happened, only the women understood the experience right away. Several good, educated men required deeper explanation before they really got it.
My story is not unique. It is every woman’s story. It shouldn’t matter that I take pride in my appearance, that I sometimes wear makeup and high heels. I know how often women are blamed and shamed for how they dress, even by other women — her skirt is too short, her blouse too sheer, her body too visible.
But I’ve got news: When it comes to sexual assault or general misogyny, it doesn’t matter what a woman looks like or what she wears. Trump’s excuse that the women accusing him are not attractive enough is, frankly, bullshit.
Every woman is a potential victim in a culture that tolerates “locker room talk.”
“This is not something we can ignore,” first lady Michelle Obama told a New Hampshire crowd in a speech that has since gone viral. “This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior, and actually bragging about groping and kissing women[.] I listened to all of this, and I feel it so personally … the shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our ambitions and intellect, the belief that you can do anything you want to a woman …
“It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get walking down the street, minding your own business, and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body; or when you see that guy at work who stands just a little too close, stares a little too long and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them or forced himself on them and they’ve said no, but he didn’t listen.”
If a candidate for president of the United States feels no compunction whatsoever about speaking and behaving this way … if the top executive of a major American news channel can get away with this kind of behavior for more than 20 years … if a young man convicted of rape gets only a slap on the wrist from our justice system — we’re not as sophisticated a society as we think we are.
Now that we’re finally having a conversation about this, many are going to wonder what we can do about it.
When someone alleges to have been sexually assaulted, we can give that person the benefit of the doubt and take their allegation seriously. According to a 2014 report by the FBI, a rape occurs every 4 1/2 minutes in this country. That should put to rest the idea that false allegations are rampant.
We also can enact harsher sentencing for crimes of sexual violence.
And we can stop protecting and excusing the perpetrators of these sins over and over again.
Just because someone is accomplished and acclaimed — whether quarterback or journalist or president — doesn’t mean they can’t also be predatory and cruel.
Donald Trump’s lewd comments about women have done this country a great favor: Finally, women’s stories of sexual assault and harassment have claimed the national conversation. Female exploitation and abuse at the hands of those in power is a condition that too many of us have had to live with for too long. My hope is that the more we share our stories, the more it will prompt a collective soul-searching for the kind of society we want to live in. As First Lady Michelle Obama reminded us last week, “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” Here’s my story of on-the-job assault at the hands of another journalist. I invite you to share yours. #reclaimpower