Sexual harassment and assault have reemerged in our national discourse, thanks largely to the leaked footage of Donald Trump and Billy Bush bantering about having their way with women. Now, more than a dozen women have come forward, alleging that Trump assaulted them in one form or another.
Trump has denied the allegations and dismissed his comments as mere “locker room talk.” But a recent case here in Chicago underscores the very real connection between such talk and such actions, and highlights why both must be vigorously fought.
Julia Martin, a human resources supervisor at a local architecture firm, was killed October 7 when her ex-fiance came over to collect an engagement ring he’d given her. Martin had recently ended the relationship.
As the Tribune reports, Martin, a 27-year-old black woman who lived on the 3000 block of South King Drive, spent her last moments calling and texting her dad and friends for help. One friend even hung up on her, thinking she was playing a prank. But her experience was all too real. After stabbing her, Martin’s ex-fiance, 35-year-old Rodney Harvey, jumped to his death from her apartment window in what’s been ruled a suicide.
Julia’s father, Derrick Martin, described her as adventurous and ambitious; she had just received her passport for a New Year’s trip to Africa. He told the Tribune that there was no indication that her ex-boyfriend was dangerous. In recent months, she had started dating again.
Martin’s death is tragic. We may never know the words she and Harvey exchanged, or the dynamics of their relationship. And although Harvey’s family recently told the Trib that he had struggled with mental health problems over the years, one thing is clear: Martin paid the ultimate price because she exercised her right to say no to a man.
Unfortunately, this is part of a larger pattern. Several stories have emerged over the past few years of women, including a growing number of black women, being attacked or killed by intimate partners or during instances of street harassment. All too often these women face harassment, stalking, assault, and even death because they don’t respond positively to a man’s desires. These men can’t handle being rejected, and instead of respecting a woman’s wishes, they take “no” as an affront to their masculinity, which has become so fragile that they feel the need to violently defend it.
During last month’s J’Ouvert Festival in Brooklyn, for example, 22-year-old student Tiarah Poyau was walking the parade route with friends when a man tried to get her attention. He reportedly accosted her, and she reportedly told him to “Get off me”—as clear an indication as any that Poyau didn’t want to be bothered. Moments later, her friends, who were walking ahead of her, heard a gunshot and saw Poyau fall. Poyau, a young black woman who had dreams of being an accountant, was killed by a close-range shot to the face.
And in January, 29-year-old Janese Talton Jackson was enjoying a night out with friends at a Pittsburgh bar when she was aggressively pursued by a male patron. He followed her outside, according to a bar employee, and “positioned himself against her backside in a sexual manner.” Jackson, a black woman, reportedly pushed 41-year-old Charles McKinney away from her and told him to “chill,” but McKinney continued following her against her wishes. The bar employee reportedly saw McKinney shoot Jackson, and yelled out to Jackson’s friend, who called authorities and ran to console her as she died.
These experiences are more common than some may think. A 2014 survey showed that 65 percent of women in the United States had reported experiencing street harassment. Among them, 23 percent said they’d been sexually touched in some way when it happened—which is, indeed, sexual assault. Within intimate relationships, estimates indicate that roughly 20 people per minute in the United States are physically abused. And when that turns deadly, as was the case with Martin, women are killed by intimate partners in 93 percent of murder-suicides.
But as evidenced by hashtags like #YouOKSis and #WhyWomenDontReport, women often choose not to report assaults to law enforcement. (For black women, who especially live under the threat of brutality from police officers and government institutions, there’s already intense distrust.) When women do report harassment or assault, police frequently dismiss them or fail to act, as evidenced by the many rape kits that go unexamined and the staggeringly low conviction rates for men accused of sexual assault. In some cases, officers themselves are the attackers.
But another reason women often don’t come forward to report assault and harassment is that those who do are further attacked for daring to come forward at all—if you need proof of this, see Trump’s recent suggestion that one of his accusers wasn’t attractive enough to be targeted. Trump also dismissed his accusers as “horrible, horrible liars” in public remarks.
But we can’t dismiss these vile characterizations, nor can we dismiss any of Trump’s previous remarks as mere “locker room talk.” These recent murders, the assault and harassment Trump has been accused of, and the supposed “talk” between men all comes from the same place: male entitlement and toxic masculinity. These are attitudes and behaviors that betray a sense of ownership of women and their bodies. Normalizing or excusing these remarks will only embolden other men to use their social power and privilege in harmful and even deadly ways.
As First Lady Michelle Obama said in a speech denouncing Trump’s banter, violence against women can’t be treated as just another day’s headline.
“This is something we cannot ignore. . . . This is not normal,” she said. “This is disgraceful. It is intolerable.”
It’s also evidence of a brand of toxic masculinity that should be actively eradicated. v