I was sitting on my living room floor and in front of my coffee table. My computer was open, I was watching CNN, my fingers planted softly on the keys, and I was sobbing. As a sexual assault survivor, this presidential election has turned into one big trigger for me and it's becoming increasingly more difficult to stay informed. That night, I was supposed to be preparing to cover the second presidential debate, but prior to the scheduled start I watched Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's press conference with the women accusing former President Bill Clinton of alleged sexual assault: Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Kathy Shelton. I sat in angered shock, hands shaking and tears streaming down my cheeks, as I watched Trump position himself as a supporter and defender of sexual assault victims, when, in 1998, Trump called Paula Jones a liar and a "loser."
The impromptu press conference came just days after audio leaked by The Washington Post revealed Trump bragging to then-host of Access Hollywood Billy Bush about grabbing and kissing women without their permission. When I read that Trump said he could, "Grab them by the p*ssy," and that he can "do anything" just because he's a star, I felt my attacker as if he was standing directly behind me. When I heard Trump brag that he could "just kiss" because he doesn't "even wait," I could almost feel my own sexual assault happening all over again. Trump went on to apologize for the tape, saying in a video statement posted on Facebook:
I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.
After the press conference concluded, I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and told myself that in a little less than a month, this would all be over. Of course, I had no idea that this election was only going to get worse, especially for survivors of sexual assault.
I thought, as a nation, we hit our collective election bottom when Trump — and many of his avid supporters — defended his dangerous comments by labeling them nothing more than normal "locker-room banter," promising women across the country that this is "just how men talk" and it's "normal." I started wondering if that's why my former coworker thought he was entitled to my body and kissed me without my permission. Maybe someone, or multiple people, had told him throughout his life that he could grab women whenever he wanted, and that's why he forced himself on top of me. I spent two days arguing against Trump's comments and talking to adults (both men and women) about consent and what it actually means and what it looks like and why bragging about grabbing women without their permission isn't "lewd" or "inappropriate," it's assault and it's illegal. However, it felt like it didn't seem to matter. The more I tried to explain consent, the more defeated I felt. When I described my own sexual assault, people told me: "This is just the way it is." And a year and half after I reported it, the police department and the district attorney's office in my own case decided that it was a "he said, she said" battle, one that would "never see the inside of a courtroom."
The detective said it "didn't look good" that I had a boyfriend, because it meant people would undoubtably assume I was lying to cover up a discretion.
Then I watched as Summer Zervos bravely gave her testimony of alleged sexual assault by Trump in front of numerous cameras and reporters, recounting the moments she alleges Trump touched her and kissed her without her permission. Trump has since responded to Zervos' allegations, releasing the following statement:
I vaguely remember Ms. Zervos as one of the many contestants on The Apprentice over the years. To be clear, I never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago. That is not who I am as a person, and it is not how I’ve conducted my life. Beyond that, the media is now creating a theater of absurdity that threatens to tear our democratic process apart and poison the minds of the American public.
Romper has reached out to the Trump campaign for further comment on the allegations, and is awaiting a response. I pushed the words, "he said, she said" to the back of my throat and forced them back down into the bottom of my stomach.
Just as Zervos valued her career and wanted Trump's alleged actions to "go away" so that she could work for a successful organization, I, too, wanted to pretend like the night my coworker assaulted me didn't happen. When a police officer stood in front of me less than an hour after I was assaulted, pen and paper in hand, and asked me if I wanted to press charges, I said no. I wanted my working relationships to stay the same and I didn't want to be the girl people either didn't believe or obviously pitied. I wanted to erase what had happened so I could continue working and, like Zervos claimed in her testimony, so business would move forward as planned. When asked why she waited to come forward with her allegations, Zervos responded, "I want to be able to sleep at night when I'm 70." A cold sweat enveloped my entire body while she spoke, vividly remembering the first night I tried to sleep after my sexual assault, but couldn't.
Later in the week, I logged onto my computer to see #TheNextFakeTrumpVictim trending, and I was catapulted back to the morning when I changed my mind and called the detective who left his number behind to tell him that I did want to press charges against my attacker. I stood naked in front of a forensic photographer as he photographed my thighs and wrists and breasts and shoulders and arms and collarbone. I stared at the ceiling as nurses performed my rape kit. I pulled 12 hairs from my head and put each into a small baggy and I swabbed the inside of my mouth to send off for testing. I put my underwear, pajama pants, and tank top into a bag, all to be sent off for analysis in some far-away lab. I endured questions on what I wore and how much I drank and was asked to describe my sexual history. The detective said it "didn't look good" that I had a boyfriend, because it meant people would undoubtably assume I was lying to cover up a discretion. After all, maybe I'd cheated and just didn't want to admit it. Then, the detective asked if I said anything to "entice" or "confuse" my attacker.
I feel like every vote for Donald Trump is a vote for the man who sexually assaulted me.
I suddenly wished I hadn't said a word. I felt like, in coming forward, I'd made a huge mistake.
When #HillaryGropedMe — the hashtag created and used by Trump supporters to make fun of the women who've come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump and, by proxy, the one in five women who will experience sexual assault in their lifetime — started trending, I once again heard the voice of my then-boyfriend blaming me for what someone else had done. I read tweet after tweet, and I remembered every online interaction that ended with a stranger threatening to rape me after I'd shared my own story. I saw the raised eyebrows of the detective when I told him how much I'd had to drink the night I was assaulted. I was reminded, once again, that a "credible victim" didn't look like me.
I balance self-care and I do what I think I can do, and when I no longer can do much of anything at all, I simply do what’s best for me.
In the past week, I've watched men call women "liars" and "frauds" because they choose to share their sexual assault stories. I've watched a presidential nominee laugh off the fact that he bragged about sexual assault and I've watched certain friends, even family members, agree with him. I've heard people make fun of sexual assault victims without remorse, without regret, and without an ounce of empathy. I haven't been able to sleep, I've been creeping toward lethargy, and I've asked my partner not to touch me. I feel like every vote for Donald Trump is a vote for the man who sexually assaulted me. As people make fun of our pain and use our experiences for their political punchlines, I force myself to close my computer and turn off my phone so I can get out of bed and spend time with my family.
The spectacle this presidential election has made of sexual assault and its victims is a palpable, endless reminder that no matter what I do or say or share with the world, there will always be a large percentage of people who don't believe me and other survivors like me. I'm forced to not only deal with the lasting affects of my sexual assault on a daily basis, but also with the undeniable fact that so many people will deny it even exists. As people tweet jokes and call women liars and brag about sexual assault, there are countless victims sitting in silence, telling themselves that this is why they can never — will never — come forward.
I want to cut myself off from hearing anything else about this presidential election until it's over. But I can't. Make no mistake, it’s not martyrdom. It’s survival. I'm doing what every sexual assault survivor does on a daily basis: I weigh my options, assess the situation, and I either walk alone at night or I pay the money for a cab; I either go to that friend of a friend's party or I go home; I either share my story, or I don't; I either leave myself open to endless scrutiny, or I log off. Everyday I have to decide whether or not I'll live in a mild state of fear — the same fear that threatens to engulf my entire existence — or if I'll simply allow myself to be defined by it. I balance self-care and I do what I think I can do, and when I no longer can do much of anything at all, I simply do what’s best for me.
So, for me, I'll continue to listen to the testimonies and engage with those who don't understand consent or believe sexual assault victims. I'll watch the final debate and, yes, I'll vote Nov. 8. I don't want to think about the fear of what we'll lose if we don't. And honestly, I don't want to think about the triggers four years of President Donald Trump could bring.