Today, as Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning the allegations of sexual assault that she has made against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a central duplicity hung over the proceeding: It is not necessarily true that most senators do not believe the stories of women like Blasey Ford and Anita Hill. It is that many think these allegations do not matter.
I don’t know a single adult man in his 50s or over who has not heard of or known someone who participated in some form of sexual harassment or worse. A courageous few have spoken out and confronted other men on their bad behavior. Many more remain silent as a condition for inclusion as “one of the guys.” Gang rapes at parties — like the ones that Julie Swetnick has described Kavanaugh as having committed or been privy to — are at the far end of a familiar spectrum packed with other violations. If one in every six women is a victim of assault, then a whole lot of men are complicit. But the senators feign outrage and ignorance of the prevalence of such behavior, especially by men of high socioeconomic and educational status like Kavanaugh.
Any number of unpardonable excuses are likely to dance in the heads of the Republican defenders of Kavanaugh in the Senate in response to Blasey Ford’s testimony: It was long ago. Boys will be boys. Women were drunk and got what they deserved. Additionally, it is likely that many of these Republican defenders view unwanted “groping and grinding” as harmless and in a category altogether different than what is legally defined as rape: non-consensual penetration. In many cases groping and grinding and physical constraint are in fact attempted rape. Whether there is intent to rape or not, other forms of sexual assault can terrorize and traumatize a survivor for her entire life.
There is never an excuse for sexual assault. If a woman is intoxicated, she cannot give consent, period. And violence against women — which includes groping, grabbing, grinding and any unwanted sexual contact — should never be justified as a rite of passage.
Feminist organizers have advanced the blunt but powerful slogan “No means no,” to which Kavanaugh’s fraternity apparently had a lewd rejoinder: “No means yes, and yes means anal.” But “No means no,” was designed to boldly confront all the ways that men attempt to rationalize sexual assault. Consider the term “date rape,” which came into common parlance some time in the 1980s, and named a form of sexual assault that was previously ignored or denied. It wasn’t long ago that if a woman went on a date or expressed any romantic interest in a man, it was assumed that she forfeited her right to say no to any specific sex act that might occur when they were together. This offensive notion has been delegitimized by sexual assault advocates and experts but still circulates in popular culture.
From 1991 to 2018
The scene in Washington, DC, today was reminiscent of the sexist interrogation of Anita Hill 27 years ago: A reluctant survivor steps forward to tell her story before high-ranking government officials and a phalanx of cameras. The world looks on as she is asked to recount very painful and humiliating details of sexual harassment in one case, and sexual assault in the other. She is expected to be composed and dignified in order to be believed, but the details themselves evoke gasps and shame. Women all over the country hear their stories and see themselves, their friends and their sisters in the narratives that Hill and Blasey Ford have told.
We also see and hear the constant ways in which various violations are minimized. I still think back in horror at the October 20, 1991, op-ed in The New York Times by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson in which he trivialized Anita Hill’s claims, casting them not as untrue but as insignificant. He insisted that what Hill described as inappropriate workplace commentary (talk of pornography and pubic hair) was in fact just coarse talk — according to him, common in the Black vernacular. Patterson insisted that Hill suffered no “emotional or career damage” as a result. How outrageous! When women survive and thrive in spite of abuse, we are condemned as much as when we succumb to fear and defeat. Patterson’s sexist and wildly fabricated assertion about Black culture is another matter altogether.
The stories of Blasey Ford and Anita Hill are both totally believable in the context of the society in which we live. Masculinist notions of success and entitlement in our society are accompanied by presumed access to women’s bodies.
Upper-class white men like Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump get this socialization early on. It is a familiar phenomenon that boys at elite prep schools, as well as in secret societies and “fun-loving” fraternities at elite colleges, feel they should “have their way” with girls and women as a byproduct of privilege. They can then put those “antics” behind them later and move on to comfortable lives and respectable careers.
It is similarly not surprising that a Black man who reached Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s level of success might internalize similar notions, especially with regard to Black women in vulnerable or subordinate positions. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, trans and poor women are less likely to be believed when recounting instances of abuse, and less likely to be viewed as sympathetic victims by police, courts, juries and the general public.
Evidence has not yet surfaced about whether Kavanaugh continued his predatory behavior later in life, but the allegations about his behavior as a teenager still reflect something fundamental about how he sees women. If he is granted enormous power to determine the fate of women’s autonomy over their own bodies, the high probability that he has engaged in this kind of violent and abusive behavior is an ominous sign. The looming reconsideration of Roe v. Wade is only one of many cases where Kavanaugh’s character and views on women, which he admits were shaped and formed by his early high school experiences, will be a factor.
Where We Go From Here
Protesters have been vocal and fearless in carrying out disruptions and rallies, circulating petitions and executing phone-call campaigns. This must continue. Defeating Kavanaugh’s nomination would be, of course, only a partial victory. There will be another nominee who may not be much better. Still, the fight is important. And victory is not measured simply by the immediate marker of whether a nomination goes through, but also by whether we grow our movement in the process, and whether we confront power so that senators like Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch don’t have free rein.
The growth of that movement includes solidarity from men: An ad was placed in The New York Times yesterday, signed and paid for by 1,600 men expressing their support and belief in the story of Christine Blasey Ford and adding that they believe Anita Hill too. This intervention was linked to the ad in support of Hill that my colleagues Elsa Barkley Brown and Deborah King and I organized back in 1991 — an ad that was signed by 1,600 Black women and ran under the headline “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.” That represents some degree of progress. Men are breaking ranks and breaking the silence. More need to do so.
Meanwhile, as we build this movement, we have to connect the dots between individual acts of sexual violence and systemic and state-sanctioned violence that harms certain groups of women more than others, making them more vulnerable to a whole range of traumas, fears and actual assaults on their well-being and ability to survive. These threats range from police violence to the lack of needed health and mental health services. Christine Blasey Ford was able to confront her assault and trauma through therapy. Many women cannot afford even that. So, while many of us experience sexual harassment and assault, these individual acts do not encompass all of the violence we experience, and many of us have limited resources to cope.
Finally, we should never say simply that “history repeats,” or “things don’t change.” Things have changed. We have more vocal, committed, smart young feminist organizers today than ever before, from #MeToo and the Women’s Marches to the intersectional and LGBTQ leadership in immigrant rights groups like Mijente; racial and economic justice groups like Dream Defenders, and Black freedom organizations like BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, Black Women’s Blueprint and Black Lives Matter Global Network. They are relentless. These leaders and organizers see gender justice as a part of their larger freedom agendas and are fighting for a world in which sexual harassment and all forms of violence will be relics of the past. That world is far in the future, I fear, but it is on its way.