Laughing Until We Cry: Conversations About Getting Flashed, Grabbed, and Groped

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Photo: Charles Hewitt/Getty Images

Thanks to Donald Trump, my birthday dinner last week turned into my mother and me trading stories of getting groped and flashed and grabbed. My father and husband stayed relatively quiet and continued to order wine as the memories came spilling out. The first time my mother was flashed, she told me, the man was wearing a raincoat. She remembered thinking, “How boring. Do they all wear raincoats?” We both laughed and continued laughing as my mom described being groped while walking through Grand Central Station when she was six months pregnant. My mother, who understands that these acts have more to do with power than sexual attraction, still couldn’t believe that a man would grope a woman who was six months pregnant. “I remember thinking, Really?” my mom joked. I cracked up. My husband and father kept drinking.

The breaking point came for my dad, I think, when I told him about the way a strange young man reached under my skirt on the dance floor of a Christmas party three years ago and gave me a “credit or debit.” “What’s a credit or debit?” my dad asked, confused. At this point, I was laughing so hard that my eyes were watering. “It’s when someone runs their fingers down your butt crack like it’s a credit card machine. You know? A swipe? They swipe your butt crack with their fingers?” I tried to explain, demonstrating the motion with my hand. My friends used to play that game in college — we would try to swipe each other’s butt cracks with our hands screaming “Credit or Debit! Credit or Debit!” Obviously, the game we played was different from what happened at the party because we were friends, and we were wearing pants, and everyone could see it coming, and we were also idiots. What happened on the dance floor was such a strange moment for me because I was older, and I had been running a show on television for two years, and I had convinced myself, wrongly, that my age and my job somehow protected me from any of this bullshit. Honestly, spending all of my waking hours at work, I had stopped thinking of myself as someone who even had a butt. Which is why a stranger touching it shocked me. I remember being annoyed and embarrassed, but some part of me was also laughing. He credit-or-debited me? Really? Every time I’ve told the story since it happened, I’ve laughed. I laughed again when I told my dad. “Wait,” my dad asked. “He reached up under your skirt?” He was not laughing. He got up and excused himself to go to the bathroom.

What was making my mom and me laugh so much? I don’t know, but it felt natural. In my experience, this is the way that women tell these stories to other women — with gallows humor, with muted anger, with a kind of world-weariness that suggests that we’ve learned to let it all roll off us. When I tell my stories to other women, I don’t have to stick to the tidy black-and-white narrative that I am a helpless victim who has fallen prey to an evil predator. For most men, anything outside that narrative sounds like a lie. Men who hear these stories, I’ve found, tend to interrogate you to get to the truth of what happened, then, if they believe you, they want retaliation or revenge. Men want rules to be enforced and authorities called. Women want those things, too, but we understand the complicated mental calculations that are forced on us: If a man reaches under your skirt on an airplane, does that mean you should put your career, your ambitions, your livelihood in jeopardy just to watch him get some kind of slap on the wrist? Isn’t that ultimately giving this stranger more power over your life? Women don’t have to explain these things to other women, because we’ve all had to ask these questions ourselves. So when we tell our stories to each other, we can talk about the gray areas, the strange details, the parts that make no sense, the ways that we feel we are somehow to blame for what happened and the ways we know we are not. We can laugh — at the sheer, mind-boggling absurdity of these situations — if we want to laugh.

Women rarely report “forcible touching” to the police, but we have been reporting it to each other for years. Get more than one woman in a room and the stories of groping and flashing and grabbing that come out will make you run screaming from the table. These stories are passed down from friend to friend. These stories become our cautionary tales, our warnings, our Wanted posters. Women have always had these conversations — over food, over drinks, over the phone, in the middle of the night, at all hours of the day. Women do report assault. We report it to each other.

So, the idea that this has now become a national conversation just means that American men, for two weeks in October, actually listened. During most of Grab the Pussy October, I have watched, with some dark amusement, as men suddenly realized that these things had happened to almost all the women in their lives. “That happened to you?” “And you were what age?” “That’s so terrible.” It was weirdly gratifying to see men give a damn, to hear their awkward attempts at finding the right words — groping, goosing, unwanted advances, unwanted touches, forcible touching — all of which sound either too sinister or too Doris Day movie to really represent the experience. But the moment when my dad excused himself from the table at my birthday dinner stopped me in my tracks. He didn’t want to laugh about a man touching his daughter on a dance floor. He didn’t think it was funny.

I started wondering, for a moment, if I had gotten too comfortable telling these stories to other women with a drink and a laugh. Should I have reported what happened to the police? What words would I even use? Legally, these assaults fall under the category of “forcible touching” — and, to paraphrase The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like forcible touching?” Forcible touching and indecent exposure are in the category of assaults that feel woven into the everyday experience of being a woman in this country. I’ve never reported being “forcibly touched” to the police. Instead, I’ve made the decision to report whatever has happened in a way that allowed me to control the narrative — I told the women in my life. I wish I could say my decisions not to report were heroic, but for the most part, they were selfish: I didn’t want the hassle. I wanted to keep dancing at a party. I wanted to keep getting paid to write. I did the calculation in my head and decided the best thing I could do for myself was to ignore what happened and put it away in the part of my brain that occasionally wakes me up in the middle of the night. Were those the right decisions? I genuinely don’t know. The problem is, of course, that the men involved never got into any trouble, and other men in my life or my industry or my city had no idea that any of it was happening.

When my dad got up and left the table, I realized what it means to include men in this conversation. I wasn’t rolling my eyes at his shock. I wasn’t cynically thinking that all of this uproar was ultimately about politics and would never mean anything for women in the long run. I was just a daughter looking at her life, for a moment, through her father’s eyes. He could see through my world-weary bluster, and it hurt him. (Either that, or he just genuinely had to go to the bathroom at that moment.) But I sat there and thought, for the first time, that maybe all of this painful unearthing of past experiences isn’t just to enlighten men. Maybe it’s a chance for women to reexamine the way we tell these stories to each other. Maybe it’s a chance to take these stories out of the familiar cabinets where we’ve stored them and look at them again without the usual words or jokes or shrugs. Maybe it’s good, for a moment, to let the hurt just be hurt.

Because these things do hurt, and they are never forgotten. Even if we dismiss what happened as inconsequential to our lives, even if we categorize these actions as misdemeanors, even if we are laughing years later about all of it, I find it chilling how many details the women in my life can remember. They remember an article of clothing the man was wearing or they remember a picture on the wall. When I read the Washington Post article about Kristin Anderson, the woman who accused Trump of reaching under her skirt to grab her, I was struck by a line that read: “What she did remember vividly is the tufted red couch.” The tufted red couch. The raincoat. The song playing. The food on the table. These details stick in your mind, because in those moments, you felt genuinely afraid.

Toward the end of the dinner, my mom and I arrived at a story that still makes both of us cry. I have no idea why some stories make us laugh and some stories make us cry, but this one makes us cry. I was probably 12 or 13, and my mom and I had driven to the grocery store to pick up an ingredient we needed for a recipe. I waited in the car; my mom ran into the store and came back minutes later shaken up. She told me that a man had grabbed her butt as she was shopping in one of the aisles. I was confused. Why would he do that? I could see on my mom’s face how difficult it was to explain to her daughter. As we drove back home, my mother told me that this was the world we lived in, but that didn’t make it right. She never reported what happened to the police. She reported it to the closest woman she could find. She reported it to me. I knew, instinctively, it was my job to listen.

*A version of this article appears in the October 31, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.