Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.”
But it’s a little more complicated than that. More omnipresent than the fear of death-by-men among most American women is the fear that every time we leave men alone together in a room, they talk about us like Donald Trump and Billy Bush talked about women in footage that leaked Friday. We fear that while men may treat us with manners in public, in private and among themselves they are disparaging us as lessers. We fear that behind every closed door is a room full of men basking in our low-grade humiliation. And the 2016 election has brought all those fears to the surface.
The footage the punditry is now (unfortunately) calling “Pussygate” hit in the waning hours of the workweek like a Charley horse because, for women, this scenario is the sum of a lifetime of anxiety. We know these guys, laughing about how easy it is to sexually assault us and dismissing it as harmless horny banter. We’re worried we’re married to them, or dating them, or one of them is our dad or our boss or our brother. We know somebody is doing what Trump and Bush did; we just hope they’re not doing it to us.
We’re worried we are Melania Trump, newly-married and pregnant with the child of a man who brags to a member of the media how amazing it is to be famous, because being famous means he can grab women’s pussies and kiss them without their consent. We’re worried we’re at home vomiting during our first trimester while our husband vomits unwanted affection on a soap opera actress. We're worried we'll one day be put in a position to say the sort of things Melania had to say after the video surfaced: "The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me. This does not represent the man that I know."
We’re worried we are Ivanka Trump, who has stood up for her father at every turn, reassuring audiences that he can’t be all that bad since he raised her into such a poised and confident woman. We’re worried that our fathers are talking about our tits to their friends, or trying to fuck our friends. We’re worried that the men we have stood up for and believed in are secretly garbage.
We’re worried we’re Nancy O’Dell, the married Access Hollywood host Donald Trump bragged about attempting to seduce. We all have known at least one person who tried to—if I may coin a term—“Donald Trump” us, men who are older or more powerful taking a sudden interest in who we are. We’re kind to them, to be polite. We try to hold them at arm’s length. And then next thing we know, a tiny-handed orange man is trying to French us in a furniture store. When these things happen, we extract ourselves from the scenario wondering what we did wrong, what led the orange man to believe that it was acceptable to take it that far. We’ve been raised to believe that telling men no is embarrassing. We’ve been raised to please men, and the orange man is displeased. We feel bad. We hope he never talks about it to his friends, and we especially hope he will not go on to recount our humiliation to a colleague of ours. We know now that he does, sometimes.
We’re worried we work with Billy Bush, cowardly glad-handers who are either just as bad as the world’s Donald Trumps or too cowardly and stupid to divert the conversation when things take that dark a turn. Bush has dismissed his behavior as immaturity, but all men were young once. We worry that they’re all this terrible at some point in their lives, that some manage to grow out of it but others remain arrested in it.
The video reminds us that we are also worried that we’re Hillary Clinton, being dragged through our husband’s mistakes. We’re worried that in order to achieve what we want in our careers, we’ll have to spend decades looking the other way in our marriages. We’re worried that his inability to refrain from indulging his impulses will haunt us, that our foes will throw his actions in our faces.
We’re worried that we’re Arianne Zucker, the Days Of Our Lives actress that Trump and Bush woo-woo’ed from the soundproof (but mic’ed) safety of their bus before disembarking and awkwardly escorting her to set. We’re worried that our bosses sit in their offices and wolf whistle our legs when discussing our job performance before declining to give us promotions because they don’t see us as competent. We’re worried that when we meet somebody more successful than we are in our chosen industry that they don’t see a brain, they see a pussy.
We’ve always had a sinking feeling that maybe this was happening to us, that maybe the men we’re closest to are pulling a fast one. But we’ve waved it off like we’d wave off a low-grade fever. Believing that when we leave a room the men who are left alone seize the opportunity to go beyond what’s acceptable boyish banter about attraction and veer into dark assault fantasies is psychically unsustainable. We can’t waste our time thinking about that. It would drive us crazy.
We talk to and deal with and sleep with and date and hire and depend on and love men every day. But unlike Melania, Arianne, Ivanka, and Nancy, we’ll never know for sure what they think about us.