BY ISOBEL O'HARE
"If you tell anyone about any of this, they won't believe you. I did the same thing to another girl last year. When she went to the principal, he didn't believe her either. She was nasty like you, and that guy knows I can do much better."
John sat next to me in our freshman algebra class. He passed me notes for the entire hour, every day of the week, detailing all of the graphically sexual things he wanted to do to my body. The notes made me feel disgusting, but he wouldn't let me get away with ignoring them, so after reading them I ripped them up and threw them away. At the end of the year, he got ahold of my yearbook and covered the entire inside back cover with his fantasies. I had to take a permanent marker to the entire page to block them out. This pattern of destroying the evidence on a perpetrator's behalf was established early and would haunt me into my adult relationships with men.
Nasty is a word used to describe women in various derogatory ways. Nasty can mean a woman is not nice to a man, doesn't defer to him. Nasty can mean a woman dares to own and enjoy her sexuality. Nasty can also mean that a woman isn't attractive enough for male attention.
"You're dating her? But she's so nasty."
This was said about me to my first boyfriend when I was a junior in high school. With my flat chest and frizzy hair, I was told nobody would believe that someone had been habitually sexually harassing me or that I was worthy of a male's genuine affection.
Donald Trump's comment directed at Hillary Clinton could fall under any one of the aforementioned definitions. It seems most likely in this context that he meant the first one, a woman who dares to stand up against a man rather than defer to him. But considering how he has referred to women who have accused him of abuse in the past, it is impossible for me not to think that his comment encompassed every possible connotation of the word. If he had wanted to call her out as a despicable human being, he could have called her a "nasty person," and the words he did choose reveal his misogyny.
This election cycle has been incredibly triggering for survivors of sexual assault, and not only women. Along with the numerous accounts I have seen posted on Facebook and Twitter from women and femmes, my news feed has been flooded recently with accounts from cis men, trans men, and intersex individuals detailing the effects of toxic masculinity on their minds and bodies.
Other victims have gone relatively unnoticed, however, as some crimes are so horrible that very few people are willing to talk openly about having survived them. With the resurfaced allegations against Trump of child sexual abuse, it has become difficult for survivors of child abuse and incest to participate in viewing debates dominated by a cis man who has advocated for grabbing women "by the pussy" and who feels entitled to kiss the mouth of a child. As a survivor of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of my extended family, watching this man ascend the ranks of society with impunity makes my stomach turn. But this is a truth of our society: Men will continue to be harbored by their communities while the people who are abused by them are forced into silence or punished for speaking about that abuse.
I recently attended a literary event where a cis male reader pointed to specific women in the audience, and referred to women in his local lit community who weren't present at the reading, that he would like to touch, kiss, fondle, and lick. Nobody stood up to ask him to stop. Nobody turned off the microphone. The people at my table shifted uncomfortably, shooting one another bewildered glances while waiting for someone to intervene, but no one ever did. No apology was ever issued by this writer, the implication being that consequences don't exist for cis white men who are supposedly expressing their creativity at the microphone.
Not only did the event trigger many of us and create a psychologically unsafe environment, but it distracted the audience from the brilliant work shared by the other readers, many of whom were writers of color sharing truly devastating, relevant work. I would have preferred to walk away from that event overwhelmed by the genius and generosity of those writers, but instead I left feeling disgusted and violated, nasty even. It certainly wasn't the first time I'd experienced such entitlement at a public reading, and I know it won't be the last.
One of the unintended and wonderful consequences of the final presidential debate is the normalization of abortion, and not just positive abortion experiences, on social media. In the wake of Trump's ignorant remarks about so-called "partial birth abortion," individuals who have had abortions are speaking about their myriad experiences. For some, abortion is not a big deal. For others, it is devastating. There is no one right way to feel about having an abortion, as our circumstances and our reasons are as varied as we are.
In the late summer of 2012, when attacks against reproductive rights were rampant across the country, I had an abortion. And while many women felt empowered to "shout their abortions" on social media, mine was very particularly traumatic and not fun to use as a rallying cry. I wanted to have the abortion - it was my choice, and it was the right one - but the experience of the abortion itself was horrific. I opted for a medication abortion and subsequently stayed at the house of the man I had been sleeping with and who had insisted on taking care of me despite my desire to stay with a female friend with a background in medicine. I gave in and spent my abortion being denied access to painkillers by a man who accused me of overreacting to the pain. This is why, to me, any man's opinion about abortion is at best irrelevant and at worst literally harmful.
My life has taught me that I am nasty in the eyes of men and that I am nasty because of the things that men have done to me. I have learned that original sin did not occur when a woman ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge but when a man first laid eyes on a woman (or a child) and thought, "I sure would like to touch that." How else could you feel in response to such a gaze but nasty?
Isobel O'Hare is a Pushcart-nominated poet and essayist who is a dual citizen of the United States and Ireland. O'Hare is the author of the chapbooks Wild Materials (published in 2015 by Zoo Cake Press) and The Garden Inside Her (published in 2016 by Ladybox Books). She received her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and in 2016 she was awarded a Helene Wurlitzer Fellowship. She lives in Oakland, California.