Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On November 9th, The Washington Post published a story about Alabama woman Leigh Corfman. Corfman described meeting former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice and current Senate candidate Roy Moore outside of an Alabama divorce court in 1979. Moore offered to watch her while her parents were inside for a custody hearing; several days later, he called her to take her out on a date. On their first outing, he kissed her and told her how pretty she was. On their second, he removed her shirt and pants and his clothes, touching her and guiding her hand to touch him over his underwear. At the time, he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. She was 14.
The responses to Roy Moore’s actions frequently tried to minimize the conduct. Sure, he had taken underage women on dates. He had pursued another woman he met when she was 14 and working at the mall as a Santa’s helper, and one he met while speaking to her high school civics class. In each case, Moore was in his early 30s, in a position of state power, preying on a much younger woman. However, he hadn’t coerced any of them into sex, so it was fine…right?
The majority of the Republican party, including the Republican National Committee, denounced Moore’s behavior and asked him to step down. However, Moore (seen as a stalwart defender of Christian values by many Alabama voters in part due to his refusal to take down a 5,280-pound granite statue of the Ten Commandments, even after a federal court order), was met with approval by many of his supporters. Breitbart reported that they could not find a single Alabama voter who believed the women. The chair of the Marion County, Alabama GOP, David Hall, commented that he didn’t “see the relevance of [bringing up the accusations],” since nothing happened other than kissing. Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler explained that, thanks to the Bible, there was nothing “immoral” about Moore’s behavior – after all, Joseph, an adult carpenter, and Mary, a teenager, had Jesus. In fact, 37% of Alabama evangelicals said they were more likely to vote for Moore after the allegations.
Zeigler’s comments have been perhaps the most cited response to Moore’s conduct – they’re somewhat funny and ridiculous enough to warrant a “same old crazy Alabama Republican” response. However, these are not the set of Zeigler’s remarks that I find most troubling. Zeigler wrote off Moore’s conduct as “nothing to see here,” asserting that because Moore did not have penetrative sex with any of the women, there was nothing wrong with his behavior.
I wanted there to be outrage over Zeigler’s comments. Yet they were all too familiar.
I was flashed while walking home from school. I was twelve years old. A man called to me from his parked car on the side of the road, asking if I could give his directions. His pants were around his ankles. I turned to walk home, physically shaking, fingernails jamming into my palms in fists clenched so tightly my knuckles would be white for another hour. I heard his car engine sputter to a start. I didn’t turn around, too afraid of making eye contact, but I knew he was following me. Finally, after what felt like decades, I heard his car pull away.
I sprinted the rest of the way home, locked the door, and shoved a chair underneath the handle, just to be safe. Huddled in the corner, I called the police – the non-emergency number. I sat on hold for what felt like an eternity. When I finally connected with a woman, I tried to explain, as best I could, what had happened. She immediately peppered me with questions. Where were you? How did this happen? Did you approach the car? I could answer them. What was his license plate number? I don’t know. What did he look like? I don’t know. What was the make and model of his car? I don’t know. Was he erect when this happened? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
I could hear her getting frustrated with me. By this point, I had started to cry, tears dripping onto the blanket I had curled myself into. I was starting to feel embarrassed. Had I not done enough? I thought I was the victim here. The longer her string of questioning went on, the more my voice began to drop. By the end, I was barely speaking above the whisper.
Finally, she hung up. She told me they would look into it. She did not ask for my name.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling, unable to close my eyes for fear that his face would appear again. The next day at recess, I told my best friend, unable to hold it in any longer. His response: “You called the police? For that? That’s nothing.”
At twelve years old, I learned that safety came from silence, and that the mountainous courage it took to speak up would often be rewarded with derision, disbelief, and doubt.
So I kept quiet. When boys in my class made snide comments about how I should stop wearing my glasses because they would “get in the way;” when, a week ago, an election judge in his mid-60s told me it was a “good thing I was pretty;” when I was sexually assaulted, when I was physically abused, when I was told that it could have been prevented if I had just “done what he had wanted me to.”
I had learned at the age of 12 the same lesson Moore’s victims (and yes, that is what they are) learned at 14 and 16 and 18: I was at the whim of men. The male body could be presented to me at the leisure of the man possessing it. It was the choice of the man when and where any sexual act, any nudity, any exposure happened. I was along for the ride. I was an object. My identity did not matter – I could have been any girl, on that street or in that bed. My identity was the relation I had to the men around me.
We teach girls, from incredibly young ages, that they are embodied sex toys who exist solely for the pleasure of men. Then, when men treat them like objects, we tell them it doesn’t matter. We undermine their experiences as “nothing,” as “just kissing,” and we teach them that their own perceptions of sexual misconduct don’t count. We create a culture where sexual harassment gets passed off as “locker room talk,” and women are taught to minimize their own experiences, a culture where we have more sympathy for college athletes who commit sexual assault than for women whose lives are forever marked by older men in positions of power. Women are silenced for fear of being told to get over it, to move on, to forget.
So what can we do? Believe women. It’s that simple. Not unconditionally, necessarily, but believe them. Listen to their stories. Listen to what it’s like to be a woman, what it feels like to leave your apartment and immediately be catcalled, or to be treated as a body without a spirit or a mind. Don’t minimize the experience of another person if it is not an experience you have had. Don’t tell someone, who was taken on a date and forcibly undressed by an older man when she was barely through puberty that she should get over it because at least they didn’t have sex. Take survivors seriously. Take their emotions seriously. In the past weeks, through the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and the resultant “me too” campaign, we have seen the tremendous impact just one woman coming forward can have on the collective understanding of what sexual assault and sexual misconduct mean. By listening to women, at all stages and with all experiences, we can help counter the culture that constantly minimizes their stories.
While Abby Diebold is the social media editor of The Daily Gazette, her views do not necessarily represent those of the editorial board.
Featured image courtesy of forward.com.