By Tom Ehrich
My first close encounter with America’s disturbing rape culture was the Sunday morning I joined a protest outside a shabby house across from Duke University’s freshman campus.
This house was where a group of varsity lacrosse players had indulged their locker room fantasies by gang-raping a woman from the Durham, NC, community.
This was before helicopter parents from the rich suburbs where lacrosse is a tribal sport swooped in, lawyers in tow, to protect their precious boys from any consequences. They threatened, they intimidated, and a weak university administration backed down.
After all, the woman was black. She was an exotic dancer being paid for a sexy performance. Maybe she was a prostitute. Maybe a drug user. Maybe even delusional. With that resume, the team’s brutal treatment of her lost its urgency. As the saying goes in rape culture, “she was asking for it.”
All that would come out later. On this Sunday morning, a crowd of mostly women shouted down the clueless lacrosse guys. They were outraged by this incident. Even more, they were outraged by systemic violation of women at this allegedly prestigious university.
One woman in five, they said, would be sexually abused before she graduated. They would be abused by their dates, by classmates and by strangers. No place on campus was safe. And the university seemed not to care.
That statistic – one in five – shocked me, naïve white male that I was. I couldn’t conceive of such abuse, or understand why the school averted its eyes from a moral crisis and, at a level that might hit them closer to home, a pile of lawsuits waiting to happen. Where were the fathers? I wondered. Where were the upstanding young men who should be protecting their fellow students? Why was a binge-drinking and date-rape culture so casually allowed?
I had lunch with a friend who served mid-level in the Duke bureaucracy. He was horrified, too, but he said nothing would come of it. The university courts rich families. It couldn’t be seen as holding their children accountable. He seemed sad as he told me this, as if the school to which he was giving his professional life had now been unmistakably revealed as corrupt.
Indeed, nothing did come of it. By the time high-priced legal talent and indignant parents were done with her, the rape victim had been made the villain. The lacrosse louts were the good guys.
Women know this story. Many men know it, as themselves victims and as people who care about what happens to women. They recoil at Donald Trump’s casual bitch-assault scenarios. What I saw on that Sunday morning was that many women have had enough. Trump’s wink-wink defense – just “locker room banter,” just guys being guys – has backfired. He has been revealed not only as a sexual predator, but as the poster child for a national collapse in mutual respect. This is the face of the corruption that women have been talking about.
One woman started a Twitter campaign to let women tell of their first experience of sexual abuse. Millions of women have written They describe being fondled at age 10, age 12, age 14 by friends, family, strangers on buses, strangers on the street. The remarkable thing is how unremarkable those stories become after you read dozens of them, let alone millions. This, it seems, is the way of the world for women.
It is nothing new. Plantation owners raped slave girls. Power does what it wants. Getting food by enduring a grope or paying the rent by enduring rape happened to immigrant women and poor women. Groping at the office, we now know, was common once women entered office culture, first as underlings and now as equals in everything but sexual power. Incest of girls happens at the rate of one in four (and, for boys, one in six).
The difference now is that we know the stories, and women who once felt powerless have claimed their power. Now it is a campaign issue, not just a delicate dance for a politician’s biographer. It is a moral crisis with names, stories, details, aftershocks.
Trump keeps trying to change the subject. But one woman after another stands up to tell of his predatory behavior. One right-wing rally after another is recorded and its ugliness laid bare. In corporate culture, where jobs are at risk, women are speaking out against abusers. In time, men who care about women will stand with them.
A quick grab at the water cooler won’t fly. Nor will intimidation by armed right-wing “observers” at the polls. As African-Americans keep telling us, once an oppressed people tastes freedom and dignity, it won’t go back to former days.