“When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Donald Trump was right about one thing. Men like him can do just about anything – and get away with it too. (Except, perhaps, when they end up running for President and their behaviour is caught on camera.)
In the aftermath of the shocking video leaked over the weekend, headlines are focussing on Trump and Billy Bush’s “locker-room banter” inside the bus, in which Trump admitted to groping women, while Bush giggled on.
But from where I was watching, this chat wasn’t the most stomach-churning part of the video – although it does give women a sad insight into how men apparently speak when we’re not around to hear them (just ask all the blokes coming to Trump’s defence because they found the comments completely normal).
No, the part of the video that made me feel sick was in-person interaction the pair then had with Days of Our Lives actress Arianne Zucker immediately after their degrading conversation about her and other women. Where – short of actually “grabbing her by the pussy” – they put the same degrading attitudes we’d just heard them privately express into practice.
Having disembarked from the bus with tic tacs in tow “in case I just start kissing her”, the pair kicked off the game of testing the woman’s boundaries when Bush told Zucker to hug Trump. She politely complied, and hugged Bush too when he asked for it.
The two men then proceeded to push the boundaries further, with Bush commenting on how Trump reacts when he “sees a beautiful woman”, insisting Zucker walk between them and then asking her which one of them she would “choose” to go on a date with. Obviously “neither” is the wrong answer, so she went with “pleading the fifth” and then settled on the safest choice: “Both”.
Although Zucker handled the creepiness with incredible grace and good humour (it’s a skill women in positions like hers probably master with a lot of experience), it was all extremely awkward.
And knowing the conversation the pair had just been having about Zucker, you know why.
In watching what took place on camera, and having heard the conversation that preceded it, many women watching the video saw ourselves in Zucker’s shoes – which is why millions of women proceeded to tweet their own experiences of sexual assaults and harassment.
We saw all of the times we have felt pressured to perform for men in our lives who hold power over us: family members, older boys, stronger men, teachers, priests, bosses, doctors… boys and men who push our boundaries and make us feel that we have to play along. Because accusing them of being improper, sexist, offensive, would always only backfire.
We’d be accused of overreacting, of being hysterical, of lacking a sense of humour. Of lying. Of defaming.
But as we saw, in seeing ourselves in Arianne Zucker, our instincts are often right on the money. When we second-guess our gut feeling that something isn’t right, how often could a “locker room conversation” confirm our hunches that the awkward behaviour we’re privy to is just the tip of the iceberg?
Trump was right about women “letting him do anything”. But it’s not because they want to. It’s because the consequences for women are far too often too great.
Only with video to back up each of the hairs that would have been raised on the back of Zucker’s neck that day has it been possible for her to finally speak out without those consequences.
“I have grown to learn that the words of others cannot effect the value of my self worth or define the content of my character,” she wrote on Twitter.
It’s a lesson many women struggle to teach ourselves and each other; to learn and re-learn every day, while we juggle the essential life skill of avoiding unwanted male attention without letting them know we’re rattled.