Another letter to my nieces

September 28, 2018

I was thinking about you again today as I watched something that brought me to tears: a woman describing, in a room full of mostly men and to a television and Internet audience of many millions of people, how she was sexually assaulted as a teenager. You may remember when I wrote you about my fears for you and other girls in the wake of an ugly 2016 presidential campaign that brought the issue of sexual harassment into the spotlight and revealed persistent attitudes toward women’s status and rights that were at best prehistoric.  At the time, I told you I hoped things would get better.  I’m not so hopeful today.

There are a lot of things that made me sad – and angry – as I watched a terrified and distressed Dr. Ford tell her story, but I’ll focus on two. The saddest moment for me was learning why, after 30 years of keeping this to herself, she finally told her husband and therapist what had happened.  When they were remodeling their house, she insisted on having two front doors.  Two front doors – who ever heard of that?  She finally had to explain that when she was 15, two older boys got drunk, locked her in a room, climbed on top of her, grabbed her all over and tried to take off her clothes, and clamped a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming for help.  She thought she would be raped; she thought she might be killed.  When they finally gave up and stumbled back downstairs, she had to go back past them to escape from the house, and she was afraid she would be trapped.  I can’t imagine going through something so scary that 30 years later I would literally tear my house apart so that I would have a way to escape if anything like that happened again.  Many people have said what happened to Dr. Ford was just “horseplay,” and have wondered what the big deal is.  The president even opined that if it was really “that bad,” she would have called the police.  After hearing her, I now know it wasn’t that bad; it was worse.  I want to keep a copy of the video to play for anyone who ever dares to wonder if sexual assault of any kind is really “that bad.”

What made me angry is the fact that she had to sit in that intimidating room and answer questions from a prosecutor in the first place. She is the victim – why is the prosecutor questioning her?  Even more widespread than the sense that sexual assault isn’t a big deal is the attitude that it somehow reflects on the victim.  Everything from “she was asking for it” to “she’s unreliable” to “she’s making this up for personal gain.”  I have no doubt that some people have fabricated stories of this kind of assault, just like people commit insurance and banking fraud.  But most people don’t.  Why if a man calls the police and says his car was stolen he is automatically believed, but if a woman says she was sexually assaulted, she is automatically doubted?  And after seeing the disruption in Dr. Ford’s life, the threats to her and her family – after seeing the raw fear and anguish on her face in front of that crowd of (mostly male) senators and others – who can any longer wonder why someone might hesitate to say anything, even if it is “that bad”?

So back to you. You are only 3 years younger than Dr. Ford was when this happened, and there are a lot more things that could happen now than back then.  (If you can believe it, we didn’t have cell phones or Instagram or even the Internet.)  I worry about you, and your friends, and all girls.  Fortunately, thanks to brave women like Dr. Ford and many others, it’s no longer a secret that these things happen a lot.  I don’t know if that makes it easier to stop, but it’s a start.  Don’t accept anything that makes you uncomfortable as just something that guys do.  They don’t, not the good ones.  The good ones are going to do what we can to raise awareness and call the creeps out.  And know that if you ever need to talk about anything like that, you have people you can talk to: your mom, your aunt, me.  People who will listen.  People who will believe you.  As I’ve told you before, never think you are less capable, or strong, or smart, because you are a woman.  You are strong.  As strong as Dr. Ford.

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