The Personal is Political

2 min

Sexual misconduct is a deeply personal experience. But is it more than that? Savala Trepczynski says it is.

I was 21 in Florence, Italy, loving the simple food and ancient architecture, the warm swing of Italian language, and the chic and sunny Italians themselves.

One night, my girlfriends and I went to a club. Walking downstairs we passed a group of guys. One whistled and lunged at me, shoving his hand up my skirt. I remember his unfamiliar fingers gnawing my inner thighs as he tried to grab my underwear, and the laugh he tossed his friends when I panicked.

I knew his behavior was wrong but I chafed at calling it “sexual assault.” I knew it was common, but I felt alone. I knew it might have been about race — I'm black, he was white — but it was unquestionably about gender. And I didn’t see the sum of these odd parts until years later, during #MeToo, when the essential feminist insight snapped into focus with joyful, raging clarity: The personal is political.

A stranger reaching up my skirt was the direct result of structures that give men nearly unfettered visual — and often physical — access to our bodies. My inability to believe I’d been assaulted wasn’t cluelessness, it was systems that keeps women’s grip on our physical sovereignty so weak we don’t always know when our borders have been crossed. The personal is political. I was 34 before I got it.

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I wonder how many men have had this aha! moment and applied it to themselves. If what happens to women is political, then what’s done to us is political, too. Say a guy hears a rape joke and stays silent, does he realize he’s doing precisely what patriarchy has trained him to do? If he presses a date for sex, does he call it a boorish moment he's not exactly proud of, or does he call it participation in structures that crush women and girls?

I don’t know. But I know true equality is a dream until millions of men, see the little picture and the big picture. Until they know the personal is political for them, too.

With a Perspective, I’m Savala Trepczynski.

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Savala Trepczynski is executive director of the Henderson Center for Social Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

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