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Passive or permissive? Let me count the ways

Renee Peck (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Renee Peck (photo by Jason Kruppa)

There’s something I find missing in all the discussion this week about Donald Trump’s Locker Room Talk Tape. Everyone seems focused on its subject (Donald) or its object(s) (the women kissed or groped), but not the verb: “They let you do it,” Trump said about his pursuit of women. “You can do anything.”

“Let” you. While I’m sure there are plenty of groupies out there who are happy to hook up with a celebrity (even an aging, overweight one), there are many more of us who simply tolerate unwelcome advances.

Trump’s “let” implies permission. For a woman, “let” is more often about passivity. “Letting” someone get away with something involves keeping quiet about it, not approving the act. There is no license to feel there.

After the Access Hollywood tape was released, writer Kelly Oxford sent out a tweet (#notokay) asking women to reveal their first sexual assaults; she received more than 30 million replies. Women recalled being fondled, kissed, smacked on the rear, hugged, squeezed or pinched, most during adolescent – or even pre-adolescent – years.

And virtually of all them stayed silent at the time.

In a word, they “let” men abuse them. On a cultural level, this initiates all kinds of conversational threads – about sexism, gender roles, power.

But from a female perspective, at its most basic, what this means is that women are constantly getting unwanted physical attention and we tolerate it.

Years ago, as a young reporter, I interviewed a TV soap opera star. We were seated at a table, and at one point he reached under it and began stroking my knee. I was astounded. Embarrassed. Perplexed. How incredibly unprofessional, was my first thought. And I didn’t know how to handle it. So I ignored it, continued the interview, got my story, and beat a hasty retreat.

I “let” this B-level TV “star” get away with what is now considered sexual assault. Back then, I didn’t know whether to laugh or blow my top. “You won’t believe what an obnoxious letch that guy was,” I told colleagues back in the newsroom. Most of them laughed.

I wonder if Trump’s “conquests” ridiculed his gropes and smooches to friends or colleagues? Or, like so many of Oxford’s Twitter followers, did they store them away as regrets and angst, to surface months or years later as agonizing psychological distress?

The subtext of “let” is about power: Male as actor, female as reactor. “You can do anything” to them indicates manipulation and control. Corporate America is not without fault in shaping that attitude. After 30 years in that arena, I gave up trying to figure out gender role modeling. If I talked and argued and was passionate about my ideas, like the men around me, I was a bitch. If I was collaborative and quiet and team-oriented, I was overlooked, often ignored.

The idea of “letting” men have their way with women resonates in New Orleans, where sex trafficking is pervasive and where male float riders tempt women parade-goers to bare their breasts for beads.

For me, it’s a matter of respect. Asking a woman to flash for beads strikes me as disrespect. Watching an underage topless dancer strikes me as disrespect. But men here are taught to hold doors and pull out chairs for the ladies, undeniable signs of respect.

There is also a matter of degree. I never felt threatened by that soap star. Or by the sexist newsroom jokes and comments that wouldn’t pass muster today. The older guys in the paper’s composing room used to tease my female boss and me: “Hey, those pants look a little tight. Are they hard to get into?” We laughed. No harm, no foul, right?

(That same female boss also wonders when women will stop dressing as though they want a man to grab something. “I realize they are entitled to dress as they like, but let’s get rid of the deep cleavage culture,” she told me. “Female mentality needs changing, too.” An entire other conversation for another day.)

Many male critics of Trump’s words have done so as fathers or husbands. (Read Frank Bruni’s thoughtful piece on that.) But having women in your life who you respect doesn’t mean that you respect all women. And I wonder if that dichotomy doesn’t especially play out in New Orleans, with its revered mamas and not-so-revered strippers.

I love the way we in New Orleans touch one another. I’m a hugger, and so are many of you. We are family. That’s what we do.

But we also know when that hug or pinch or pat or kiss arrives with too much gusto or improper placement. The next time it happens, maybe we should “let” them have it.


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