Words Matter

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.” – Donald J. Trump
Presidential Debate Oct. 9, 2016

Despite the obvious first impression, this post isn’t particularly political, and it’s not about Donald Trump. This is a frighteningly personal post. Responses to the leaked video of Donald Trump’s claims about what his so-called celebrity allows him to get away with have prompted me to publicly share two incidents that – up until now – I’ve shared only with my closest friends. Read a bit more and you’ll see that this isn’t about one man or his campaign. This is about words – words spoken to me. They weren’t just words – they were words spoken by people in a professional position with the power to affect me. These were words that have resonated with me for decades. These were words that did and continue to affect me. If this were only about one man, one candidate, or only me, I would remain silent. Unfortunately, my story is commonplace. And because it’s too easy to assume that words only matter to those who are weak and powerless I’m writing this now.

Even before tonight’s debate I had decided to share my story, prompted by Jan Halper Hayes’ comments on BBC Newshour (BBC New Hour Oct. 8, 2016). “We have to put 50 percent of the responsibility on women because these women … giggle. These women don’t slap their hands and say don’t do that to me. … As women I tell them just ignore it. They think they’re being cute … and it is disgusting but the reality is we’re not going to change their thinking. If that’s embedded in them that’s how it is. … These are words. They’re not actions.”

Listening to this, my first reaction was anger. And then, shame – shame that I didn’t slap anyone’s hand and tell them not to do it to me or anyone else. Shame that I ignored it. In the first case, it seemed like such a small thing – an isolated incident; who would take the complaint seriously? In the second, I made a calculated decision: what would be the personal cost to me of reporting the behavior versus the likelihood that reporting it would prevent another woman from experiencing a similar offense? I was not physically assaulted. Thankfully, I was not groped or kissed or subjected to any other form of unwanted physical, sexual advance or assault.  It was just words. But with time I’ve learned how much words matter.

The first incident happened in graduate school. I was meeting with a professor in his office. He commented on my tan. It was near the end of the spring semester. I told him that in preparation for an upcoming beach trip with my family I’d been going to the tanning salon (it was the early 90’s and that was thought to be a healthy way to build up a base tan – go figure). He asked if it was an all-over tan.

I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an innocent, careless question. Maybe it was. But I couldn’t escape the image of him picturing me naked and tanned, with and without tan lines. Even after this, I never suspected that he treated me differently in class or that he graded me differently than any other student. I also never again went to him for help outside of class.

The second incident happened more recently (though over a decade ago). I was a tenured associate professor and no one’s shrinking violet. I was traveling to a conference. A (senior) male colleague travelling from the same airport and on the same flight asked to store some toiletries in my checked luggage so that he would not have to check a bag. After checking in to the conference hotel he came by my room to retrieve his toiletries. At the time I was weighing a career move and – having previously asked him for advice – he offered to discuss this.

In the midst of talking about my career options, and completely out of the blue, he asked me “Would you be offended if I hit on you?” While I did not slap his hand, I also did not giggle. Instead I said the first thing that popped into my head: “Would you be offended if I laughed at you?” (as I said I’m no shrinking violet). He dropped it at that, but the awkward exchange hung in the air.

I hate to admit it, but it felt inappropriate for me to demand that he leave. I didn’t want to admit that what he said had shaken me. I wanted to pretend that every thing was okay, and professional, and that he hadn’t made me feel like his offer to provide career advice was just a ruse to get me into bed. When he left I wanted to tell someone, but the only people there were professional colleagues. The last thing I wanted to do was to add insult to injury by telling others that I’d been subjected to an unwanted sexual advance.

I was fortunate. I didn’t suffer any retribution after so inelegantly turning down this man’s advance. But as before, I found myself avoiding situations in which I might be alone with him. I was never again able to turn to him for help or advice. And I’m afraid that by ignoring it I’ve let down others who might not see saying ‘no’ as an option.

I’m grateful they were just words. But these words made my world smaller. They closed off access to people who should have been there for me as a teacher and mentor. They were words that in other circumstances and spoken to a less headstrong version of myself might have felt less like an unattractive offer and more like an ultimatum.

Don’t let anyone fool you. Words matter.

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