“It’s the nicest thing I’ve ever owned,” Jenny says, her trembling hands holding the necklace up to the light. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she beams.
She looks at me expectantly, a smile creeping over her worn, pretty face. She instinctively raises her hand to hide the indignity of her missing bottom teeth. Now in her mid-50s, her sad, dark eyes suggest she’s been around much longer.
“It’s really so lovely, Jenny,” I manage to say, looking at the string of purple and blue oversized rhinestones, hot-glued into plated brass. Several prongs are bent out of position, and the metallic paint is chipping off on one side. It reminds me of a purchase I might make at the dollar store to reward my young daughter’s good behavior. And it’s Jenny’s prized possession.
I have no words. Technically, I’m supposed to be the one teaching lessons as the small group facilitator at this women’s shelter, but each week I leave convinced I’m actually the pupil. This week proves no different.
“Jenny,” I say, “I’d be honored to hear your story. I could tell something was bothering you in group today. Can you tell me what it was?”
“It doesn’t really matter,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do about it. You probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.” She fidgets with the curtains, avoiding eye contact—anything to shift focus off the weight of the words she is about to utter. Her face wrinkles up, but the tears don’t fall; that well ran dry a long time ago. Then she begins.
When Men Take What They Want
She tells me how her mother sold her, age eight, into prostitution for drug money. Her first “clients” were the sweaty old men across the street. They reeked of cigarettes, body odor, and whiskey. They ripped her favorite green plaid jumper from her tiny body and taunted her as she tried to escape. Her voice shakes, remembering her mother’s cold irritation at her sobs.
“It’s just part of being a woman,” her mom said. “You’re gonna have to be a big girl and get used to it.”
Jenny got used to it. It cost her everything. Fifty years later, she still sleeps with one eye open, reciting childhood prayers and old Native American chants through the wee hours of the night until she can see the sun creeping up over the horizon and the terror, for a while, subsides.
The venomous narrative that sinks its fangs into the psyche of thousands of girls like Jenny every day is that they are somehow not worth protecting, that men can take what they want by force, and that how society treats them reflects their real value. Jenny’s story is not the exception. By the time our group concludes, every woman in it has shared her own story of sexual trauma.
So it hits me a little harder, a few months later, to read about Christopher Hambrook, a man who took advantage of a law that allowed him inside two separate women’s shelters in Toronto simply by claiming he identifies as a woman named “Jessica.” My face flushes with anger as I read how he sexually violated vulnerable women in each of these shelters.
“Her tights had been pulled down past her bottom, and her bathing suit had been pulled to the side,” read the court documents. “She yelled at the accused, demanding to know what he was doing. He simply covered his face with his hands, said ‘Oops!’ and started giggling.”
I immediately picture the agonized expression on Jenny’s face. These victims were women like her, with so little left to give and nowhere left to turn. Now, thanks to yet another mandate from our Commander in Chief, not even shelters offer safety.
Be a Big Girl and Get Over Your Trauma
Just a few years ago, I listened in hopeful agreement as President Obama addressed the nation about the national epidemic of sexual assault and rape culture. “The success of any nation,” he declared “can be predicted by the way it treats its women.” He continued, “Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted, ‘You are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.”
But as the president prepares to approve new rules requiring federally funded women’s shelters to open their doors to men, the only thing women like Jenny can feel at their backs is the familiar sting of betrayal. As gender-identity-based legislation sweeps the nation, the mainstream media is sounding more and more like Jenny’s mother, telling women who oppose these laws to “be a big girl and get used to it.” I read a recent column that urged us to exercise “moral imagination” and find empathy for transgender individuals whose experiences we don’t understand.
I want to be seen as compassionate, and I genuinely care for the dignity of all human life. But this rush to embrace gender-identity-based legislation too often ignores the real harm that some—under these new laws’ protections—are doing to people who are already hurting. Must we be the only ones expected to exercise moral imagination?
Where’s the empathy for rape survivors now forced to share locker room showers with anyone who declares himself female, even just for the day; for women who open their fitness magazines to find the new ideal female body type apparently includes a penis; for the young track star who sees her hard-earned place at the state track meet awarded to an anatomical male; for women like Jenny, reciting childhood prayers to make it through the night?
So Is Apologizing for Rape Okay Now?
In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the Cheshire Cat poignantly declares, “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” It’s a fairly concise summary of our current state of affairs. But the more frantically I try to claw my way out of the proverbial rabbit hole, the more aggressively I’m met with the dystopian chorus of “Bigot! Off with her head!” Who needs a head when hearts and feelings trump all?
The problem is not an absence of moral imagination; it’s an absence of objective reality. When gender identity wins, girls and women always lose. Biology matters, and not just in the imagination. There’s an undeniable power differential between the sexes, and it rarely ends in the favor of team XX. How many Christopher Hambrooks will there have to be before people are willing to name the problem? These aren’t hard questions; they just require hard answers.
No amount of imagining will change what’s scientifically true. While some are busy demanding validation at any cost, Jenny sits polishing rhinestones in her room at a homeless shelter. I’m defensive of her dignity (and my own). I’m not willing to let men take it by force. It may not be worth that much to you. But it’s the nicest thing I’ve ever owned.