By JACK HEALY
October 21, 2016
In 30 years of marriage, Nancy Fagin had never told her husband about “the handling” — how, as an eighth grader volunteering at a small natural history museum in Chicago, she was sexually molested by a security guard.
That changed last week. As the couple discussed Michelle Obama’s speech condemning Donald J. Trump’s treatment of women as “intolerable,” Ms. Fagin, 62, who spent her career running a specialty bookstore in Chicago, turned to her husband and said that something had happened to her.
“I just sort of had to say that,” Ms. Fagin later said in an interview.
Her husband, Ron Weber, 75, said he responded by talking about how his former wife had also been assaulted.
“It’s widely occurring, and most women don’t bring it up,” he said.
Far from the campaign trail, the shock waves about Mr. Trump’s crude language, captured in a recording, and accusations against him of sexual assault by numerous women are reverberating through marriages and relationships across the country. Couples say they are talking to each other about the degradation of women in new ways and revealing assaults that had been buried for years.
For the first time, women say, they are telling their husbands and boyfriends about the times they were groped at nightclubs or on a subway, flashed on the street, shushed or shouted down at work.
Some men, in turn, said they were starting to see how gender could shield them from needing to defensively palm their keys as they walk to a car, from being trailed home by a stranger, from having co-workers rate their bodies.
The conversations are revelations for people who have raised children together and shared the most intimate details of each other’s lives. They have brought some couples closer but splintered others, revealing a rift in how two partners view sexual harassment and men’s and women’s places in the world.
In North Carolina, the tapes of Mr. Trump’s vulgar comments and the women’s accusations became the breaking point of a 52-year-old woman’s relationship. Her boyfriend questioned some of the women’s allegations. The woman, who was sexually abused as a child, said she believed them. They argued and argued. Then they agreed it was time to break up. They did.
The tapes of Mr. Trump had “just triggered a moment of clarity for me,” said the woman, who declined to be identified on such a private matter.
She said Mr. Trump’s remarks and the subsequent allegations were “like seeing a public service announcement warning you about abusers.’’
Some men said they felt a reflected sadness and anger as they absorbed stories about what their partners had gone through.
In Deerfield Beach, Fla., Gene Goldman felt an urge to protect his wife from an assault that happened decades ago. In San Diego, a man who had told his wife over the years not to bring up pain from her past fell silent as she recounted how she had been assaulted.
In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, April Ekstrom, 49, said Mr. Trump’s words had hit such a deep nerve that she was angry at her husband, Jon, for not being angrier. He is a Republican who is supporting Hillary Clinton this year, but Ms. Ekstrom felt he needed to do more. On a drive to the Oregon coast this past weekend, she urged him to call their three daughters and tell each that he abhorred the comments.
“I have a feeling I will,” Mr. Ekstrom said.
Kristen Little, 31, a tuberculosis and H.I.V. researcher in Washington, has been incredulous over the male politicians and television commentators who rushed to say that neither they nor anyone they knew engaged in what Mr. Trump called “locker room banter.”
Maybe so, Ms. Little said. But nearly every day, she faces a barrage of this from strangers on the street: Hey, hottie. I wish I was your bike seat.
A 2014 survey of 2,000 people in the United States commissioned by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization, found that 65 percent of women said they had been verbally or physically harassed in public places. About one in four men said they had been harassed.
“I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary,” Ms. Little said. “I find it incredibly hard to believe that these kinds of conversations aren’t happening in groups of men, just based on what men feel free to shout on the street at me every day. Literally every day.”
On a rooftop in the U Street neighborhood of Washington, Ms. Little and a group of mostly male friends had just finished watching the second presidential debate when the conversation tilted to what she experienced every day on the street.
“They were like, ‘Whoa, those kinds of things happen to you?’” Ms. Little said. “They know from an academic perspective that sexism is a very real thing. But I don’t think they grasp the very low-level sexual harassment that women deal with day in and day out because they don’t see it. They can’t see it.”
Josh White, 29, a lawyer, was among the friends who said he was stunned by Ms. Little’s stories of being groped, heckled and followed, and he said it had shown him a blind spot.
“It was really astonishing how different our experiences are,” he said. “Guys, we don’t talk about these issues amongst ourselves. Why would we? A lot of the time you have to have someone push you in that direction or plant the seed to get you talking.”
Couples on the Republican side of America’s political divide found themselves having similar conversations that ended in the conclusion that Mr. Trump was still their candidate.
In the Denver suburb of Centennial, Jeff and Antonette Smith recalled the night six years ago when one of Ms. Smith’s colleagues dismissed her efforts to weigh in during a discussion about company balance sheets. That night, they went online together to scout out masters of business administration programs that would move her higher in the corporate world.
Neither was thrilled about having Mr. Trump as the Republican nominee, but they agreed that the tapes would not change their vote.
“He was a guy’s guy,” Mr. Smith said of Mr. Trump, noting that he had run beauty pageants. “He was surrounded by beautiful women. He shouldn’t have said them, I agree. That being said, we have so many larger problems to worry about.”
Left or right, couples said they cared less about the candidates’ own rocky personal lives and marriages than about how their policies and words would affect their lives, and their children’s.
In the Dallas suburb of Plano, Heather Hunter and her husband, Chris Griffith, were watching an MSNBC program on which two women’s accusations against Mr. Trump were being discussed when a panelist, the journalist Ana Marie Cox, paused, took a deep breath and said, “I was brought back by that statement to something that happened to me when I was a young woman.”
Out tumbled stories of what Ms. Hunter had gone through. The men who groped her on a Madrid subway when she was 19 and studying abroad. The man at a bar who stuck a camera under her skirt.
“We’ve been together for seven years, have been married for five, and we’ve never talked about these things,” Mr. Griffith said. “Guys, we kind of know that stuff is there. We do know these things are out there. But that it’s happened to Heather and there’s nothing I can do about it other than support her and talk to her — it makes me feel helpless.”