Too real: Bergdorf’s, New York, East Coast private schools and the sexual threat from E. Jean Carroll to Christine Blasey Ford (it really is as bad as it sounds)

Friends — this is not my usual kind of post, but these are some thoughts I’d like to share nonetheless.

This past Friday night, I watched E. Jean Carroll tell Lawrence O’Donnell her story of how Donald Trump raped her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman.

That story – like the story of Christine Blasey Ford – got to me. Because I know those worlds. I am a white privileged straight CIS gendered woman who grew up in Manhattan. I know fancy department stores and the people who frequent them. I also went to an extremely expensive elite private girls school in Manhattan and I encountered boys from elite private schools. I know the turf that Ford and Brett Kavanaugh traversed.

I’m in between the ages of Carroll and Ford – the first being on the cusp of the Silent Generation and the other being on the edge of the gen-x generation. Interesting and distressing how little has changed with the question of assault and rape. How that question roils under the surface of everything.

While I was never the victim of a sexual assault, I DO remember moving through the very elite white spaces that both Carroll and Ford traversed, feeling – always feeling – a profound sense of sexual threat from the men and boys I encountered there. As a result, I was always extremely careful where I went and whom I went with. I always had money for a taxi. I never got drunk as a high-schooler. I never got very high, except for once in the company of a female friend at her country house.

I moved through the world with great care and – not to put too fine a point on it – fear.

It’s worth pointing out that the most sexually aggressive boys I ever met in high-school, were boys who went to East Coast elite private boarding schools. A couple of these schools have been cited for sexual molestation on the part of the teachers. Which would make sense. Once I remember, I made a brief stop at a party with a date from one of the said schools before going to a party held by one of my (female) classmates. I noticed that I was the only girl there, which seemed odd. Happily one of the guys at the party turned out to be a childhood friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. I talked with him, and then my date and I went off the next party. I wonder, especially after the Ford hearings, if something else might have happened, if I hadn’t connected with that friend, or if I hadn’t had another party to go to, or if I’d had a lot to drink, or If I hadn’t lived only 3 blocks away from the party.

In college, I avoided the fraternity scene, which seemed scary and gross, and connected with men who were exchange students at Smith. These were the men who  became my lovers. In graduate school I met my husband through a friend of a friend, and throughout my time in the various institutions where I studied for my MA and my Ph.D. I exercised great care. I cultivated a very tough feminist exterior, and I stayed close to my best friend, who was a gay man.

But even then, things were creepy. When I was a T.A. a somewhat lazy male student in the French language class I was teaching invited me to a faculty open-house at his fraternity. I went because it felt like a dare, and I was tired of this kid underperforming in class. But as always, I’d made arrangements to have someone pick me up, and I only stayed a short while. I most emphatically did not wear a skirt, but rather pants, a button-down shirt and a jacket. I remember making this decision very clearly. I remember the fraternity brothers being surprised at how young I was, and I remember them not so subtly leering at me as I and “my” student engaged in an awkward conversation, as other students continually pressed liquor on me. I sipped while he showed me around the premises. I kept my eye on the exits.  Happily my roommate pulled up in her car early, and I left. The recent n plus one article on fraternities, made me remember that encounter. How intimidating it felt, although “nothing happened.”

This extreme caution persisted into my early professional career. And quite frankly, has stayed with me, even though I am at this point, a senior citizen. To this day, I do not generally sit in a bar by myself, and I’m careful about where I eat dinner, if I’m eating alone before a conference or event. I’m not proud of this. It feels cowardly and dumb. But that’s the way I roll.

Reading both E. Jean and Christine – I am impressed by their courage and confidence, the way they moved through the world. I never dared to move through the world in that way. That’s how powerful my own socialization was.

I think these stories are important, because they point to how deep the sexist, misogynist violent waters are that – to quote Anna Marie Cox and Dahlia Lithwick — we’re swimming in. And if white girls from private school are swimming in water that deep, then I can’t really fully imagine what girls of color are swimming through and how deep and treacherous those waters are.  I can’t fathom it, and I think that’s important for me to realize too, as a privileged white woman. The level of danger. Finally, I appreciate these women telling their stories for many reasons, not the least of which being that I can appreciate and understand my own fear, and recognize that it wasn’t silly or crazy or weird, and that my extreme caution might have – in at least a couple of instances – protected me from sexual assault.




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