It was the author Kelly Oxford, a social media powerhouse, who got things started on Friday night.
“Women: tweet me your first assaults,” she wrote on Twitter at 7:48 p.m. “They aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: ‘Old man on city bus grabs my ‘p---y’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.”
When she first posted the message, Oxford said in an interview later, she did not expect more than a handful of replies. “It was such a personal question,” she said. “I thought, ‘No one is going to share anything on Twitter.’ ”
Yet by Saturday morning, she was getting as many as 50 responses per minute: often-explicit, first-person accounts of molestation. A hashtag had materialized: “#notokay.” The Twitter posts continued to pour in through the weekend. And by Monday afternoon, nearly 27 million people had responded or visited Oxford’s Twitter page.
As swiftly as the release of a recording of Donald Trump engaging in banter about forcing himself on women had dealt a potentially fatal blow to his presidential campaign, it also had become a rallying cry for survivors of sexual assault, harassment and other forms of abuse.
“I won’t give details, but I was 12, and he went to jail,” Emily Willingham, a writer, posted on Twitter.
A social media movement was born, as multitudes of women came forward to share their stories. The result has been a kind of collective, nationwide purge of painful, often long-buried memories.
Facebook pages and Twitter feeds filled with comments and multiplying threads from women who recalled getting groped by doctors, by piano teachers, by photography instructors, by perfect strangers. They told stories of getting flashed on the bus, of having male colleagues rub up against them at the copy machine in their office, of dates and bosses demanding sex.
This is scarcely the first protest movement to emerge in response to violence against women: The 1970s gave rise to the first Take Back the Night candlelight marches.
More recently, after a Toronto police officer told college students that if women wanted to avoid rape, they should not dress like “sluts,” groups in cities from New York to New Delhi have staged SlutWalks.
Nor is Trump the first public figure to have his sexual behavior scrutinized. It seems fair to wonder if Bill Clinton could be elected today, given what is now known about his extramarital history. And, of course, there was Anthony Weiner, with his penchant for sending lewd social media messages and photos to strangers.
To many victims of sexual assault, Trump’s words struck a particular nerve. It was not simply that he is the Republican presidential nominee, and that a hot microphone had captured him speaking unguardedly. It was his casual tone, the manner in which he and television personality Billy Bush appeared to be speaking a common language, many women said, that gave Trump’s boasts a special resonance.
What he said and how he said it seemed to say as much about the broader environment toward women — an environment that had kept many of these women silent for so long — as they did about the candidate. And Trump’s dismissal of his actions as “locker-room talk” only underscored the point.
“This is RAPE CULTURE — the cultural conditioning of men and boys to feel entitled to treat women as objects,” Jill Gallenstein, 40, a retail executive in Los Angeles, wrote on Facebook. “It’s women and girls questioning what they have done to provoke such behavior. It’s the dismissing of this behavior because ‘it’s the way it has always been.’ It’s justifying the behavior because other powerful men have done it too. ‘Locker room talk’ normalizes this behavior — what we say matters.”
That locker-room talk also seemed to create its own momentum online.
“I’ve never really thought about these moments cumulatively before,” Julie Oppenheimer of Chicago wrote on Facebook, after listing a few episodes of her own, including being kissed on the mouth by the janitor at her synagogue when she was 13. “In part, because they seem so ‘small’ compared to what many have experienced — not worthy of consideration. That’s because all of us already live in Trump’s world, where these behaviors are commonplace.”
Laura Sabransky was one of many women who added to Oppenheimer’s thread, writing that she had been given date-rape drugs three times between high school and college.
“I call Trump a walking trigger alert,” she said in an interview. “He is triggering anxiety and PTSD-like reactions in women, me included.”
Even before the release of the 2005 recording of Trump, 2016 was shaping up as something of a watershed year for awareness of sexual harassment, between the pending trial against Bill Cosby and the high-profile case of Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student who was convicted of sexual assault.
For many women watching and reacting to the weekend’s events, the surprise news conference on Facebook Live that Trump staged before Sunday night’s debate, with three women who have long accused Clinton of sexual assault or harassment, only compounded the damage he had done in the original recording. They saw him not as giving voice to victims of sexual abuse but as using the women as props.
“It’s pretty sad when you see it as, ‘My behavior is not as bad as another man’s behavior,’” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York. “The irony for me is, in a campaign short on any concrete policies, Donald Trump has accidentally shed light on a very serious issue.”
Amy Richards, a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, a group for young feminists, said that many sexual abuse victims who unburdened themselves after Trump’s video did not want his comments to be seen as anomalous.
“Some of it was so that we automatically didn’t go to this place of having this one instance be an exception and therefore more excusable,” she said. “Yes this is women speaking up, but it’s speaking up to all of the Donald Trumps in our lives.”
And there appear to be many.
“Grabbed from behind on the street. Thought it was my fault because I was wearing a dress,” Lynne Boschee, 50, of Phoenix, wrote on Twitter. “Never told anyone. I was 14.”