Can we reflect on what just happened and talk about it?
I think Dr. Christine Blassey Ford told more of the truth than Judge Brent Kavanaugh.
I also hope none of us is the same person s/he was at age 17 … or 18 … or 20; we should be growing and maturing beyond the stage when immaturity tends to be at its zenith.
I also find that absolutes in rhetoric are getting all of us nowhere. We need to drop the “all right” or “all wrong” mutually exclusive either/or arguments and consider elements of scale and context.
Dr. Ford’s description of what happened was completely credible in terms of what she remembered and what she did not. Her professional knowledge of how trauma and memory work added further insight; however, the testimony itself illustrated the theoretical concepts well enough. Of course she remembers the events much more clearly that Judge Kavanaugh does. It was traumatic for her; she feared, not only for her safety, but for her life at times. For him, it was quite likely just another alcohol-fueled party; it all fades into one big blur he’d (probably) like to forget as much as he can.
Of course Dr. Ford didn’t tell anyone. How could she? She’d only be bringing trouble on herself. She’d lost all her “good girl” protection in this situation; she wouldn’t be able to claim attempted rape … or even rape, if that had happened. Only good girls could be raped; if you weren’t a “good girl,” then you were probably asking for it in some way … to some degree … and maybe (if you were bad enough), you even deserved it.
That’s how the thinking went, at any rate, at that time. Rape was committed by someone the woman did not know, who assaulted her in some random chance encounter in which she was doing nothing to indicate sexual interest or to put herself at any risk. To be a victim, she had to have been a “good girl” before the rape happened. A good girl did not wear anything that could be sexually suggestive. As a teenager, a good girl did not attend parties where adult supervision was completely absent. She did not drink alcohol if she were under age. If she was of age, she would not have more than one alcoholic drink at the event. She did not stay at parties or events where over-consumption of alcohol was happening or being encouraged to happen. If she could not get herself out of a risky situation, she always had a quarter for a pay-phone so she could call for a ride.
As Dr. Ford described events at the party, it was clear she had failed every requirement for being a good girl in that situation. She was wearing a swimsuit – which by its very nature is sexually suggestive, whether two-piece, one piece, or even a racer style for competitions. A good girl does not wear sexually suggestive clothing. She was at a party where there was no adult supervision and alcohol was being consumed. A good girl would exit such a scene immediately. Not only did she stay, she had a beer. A good girl would not drink a beer at age 15 … at least not in a situation like that, where no family members and no adult supervision were present.
If she told anyone – her parents, the adults at the house, the police, anyone – what happened, she would have heard: “What did you think would happen? Why did you stay? It was a house, wasn’t it? Were the phones not working? Why didn’t you call for a ride home immediately? Why didn’t you get over to the country club and use the pay phone there, where it was safe? Didn’t you have your quarter? You’re so lucky that’s all that happened; you could have really been hurt.”
All of this may sound strange to modern ears – not just the bits about pay-phones and the quarters that were necessary to place a call from them. All of us women of a certain age were routinely warned about parties like the one 15-year old Christine Blassey attended. We were told “bad things” could happen at events like this. If we somehow found ourselves in such a situation, we needed to get ourselves out of there as soon as possible. If we needed a ride, call – have a quarter to use a pay phone, if that was the only safe or available option. To remain in that situation was to invite “bad things” to happen. “Bad things” were understood to refer to sexual activity that was, at a minimum, unintended and definitely unwanted.
Such things were known to happen in situations like that high school party Dr. Ford described. If things like this happened (and we know they did – this was not some 80s-era urban legend), then it also means some people had to be doing them … not that anyone would admit to it – not then … and certainly not now.
The teenaged Brent Kavanaugh certainly fits the general description of the kinds of guys who might do the “bad things” that happened at parties “like that.” Despite his claims otherwise, in the hodgepodge of drinking ages at that time, no state had 17 as the legal age. He wasn’t of legal age to drink anywhere. However, he was a school athlete … and then (just like now) underage consumption could have eligibility consequences as well as legal ones. But, it has also long been and still is the case that, for certain considerations, like athletic ability, player’s position, how well the team had been doing … family social standing … household net worth (and the influence that comes with it) … for various reasons, exceptions could be made; behavior could be overlooked. That Judge Kavanaugh chose to invoke his various privileges (class, gender, race) as a defense against Dr. Ford’s accusations is telling.
But rather than get all spun up over what might have happened … why it should (or should not) still matter 30 years later, let’s put things in context. Young Christine Blassey had been told a set of stories, given a general narrative to shape her conduct – what it means to be a good girl. Young Brent Kavanaugh had also been told a set of stories. But the narrative he was told was somewhat different. He was good-looking. He was an athlete. He and his family were fairly well off economically. Therefore, because of all this, he was desirable to the young women around him. And he just as he was entitled to their desire, he was also entitled to the fulfillment of his desires. Oh, he might have to “help” a good girl get past her inhibitions, but that would be okay because she really wanted to be with him … to make him happy … to have him like her … to give him the sex he wanted. It was okay to push a little if he needed to get what he wanted. He deserved it.
In this current #MeToo moment, this probably sounds like something from the dark ages. But such were the stories of those days. On TV, the ultimate romantic couple of the soap opera world was General Hospital’s Laura and Luke. Their relationship was regarded the height of romance; their wedding was a record-setting event in terms of viewership. But their relationship started when he raped her in his nightclub. Writers tried to soften it a bit with later flashbacks, but the undercurrent remained for those who saw that initial encounter.
Date rape was played for laughs, most notably as a sub-plot in the highly popular and successful coming-of-age movie Sixteen Candles. Rather than protest what happed, the victim (the most popular girl in the school) assures the guy it was better than okay … and she likes him, even though he is a geeky/nerdy type … and if she hadn’t been set up like that, she would have never discovered this … so it’s all okay.
Like I said earlier, these were the stories we were told that shaped the narrative for how ordered our lives, made our choices, decided our actions, and understood the behavior of others. At that time, as a society, we were still puzzling over the concept of marital rape. (How could it be rape? Wasn’t the marriage ceremony itself consent to sexual activity?) Date rape was a very murky concept. Could a man be blamed if a woman led him on to some degree, gave mixed signals? (And how would we know she hadn’t?) These views and the stories shaped by them have since received well-deserved critiques and have been appropriately discarded or altered.
But that’s how it is now – it’s not how it was then. And when Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh were giving their testimony, they were talking about how things were then. We need to remember that.
No doubt teenaged Brent Kavanaugh, like many of his similarly situated peers, was something of a jerk. With understandable reluctance, he did acknowledge consuming quite a bit of beer in his youth. Based on the notations from his yearbook and some other details that have come to light, he was likely a regular on the party scene and generally drank to excess. Alcohol lowers inhibitions … which has caused a number of people of all ages to be far more sexually forward, and even aggressive, than they are while sober. He’d hardly be unique in this regard. And if we take as a given that, as Dr. Ford, recalled, he had been drinking heavily prior to their encounter at the part, then there’s a very good likelihood he would not fully remember the events of that day. It also sounds like this was not a singular event. There were other similar occasions in which the young Kavanaugh, while under the influence of alcohol, behaved in various ways that can be categorized as sexually inappropriate. All of these things he’s been accused of probably did happen.
However, what does it matter now? That is the key question and the answer is: not much. What he probably did then doesn’t matter so much now because it is also clear from the record that he has not done anything like this since his college years. With his various positions, Brent Kavanaugh has been subject to multiple FBI background investigations. If he were still in the habit of behaving inappropriately, his career never would have advanced this far. Someone would have said something somewhere along the line.
Why did he stop? Well, most likely, because he grew up – just like most people do. He is not the same person today as he was in high school and even into college. It happens (most of the time, at least). I would have preferred to have heard his story of how that happened … Did something make him decide to quit the party scene, cut back on the drinking? Did he decide that just wasn’t the sort of person he wanted to be, the way he wanted to be seen by others? Did he just outgrow it, as many of his peers did, without any clear prompt or impetus? I, for one, would have preferred the story of how he left off being a party boy and became a mature responsible adult to the highly defensive assertion of privilege that he actually offered at the hearing.
But such honesty and transparency are not safe right now. That’s the downside of our #MeToo moment. Any and all transgression of sexual boundaries by any man is treated as the moral equivalent of rape. That’s not only unhelpful; it’s inappropriate. If we are going to have a genuine public conversation about sexuality and boundaries and responsibility, we can’t treat everything as all the same in every form. We have to be able to say what is, what happened, and why so that we can find our way to a better, more respectful, less sexist future.
As #MeToo started trending on social media as women reported the various forms of sexual degradation, harassment, and assault they had experienced, men were feeling they all were being held guilty of the worst of these offenses … and some of them actually wanted to be allies with women in addressing these concerns … and so #NotAllMen developed.
Here’s my take: #NotAllMen is not accurate. While it is true that not all men have committed the worst of the transgressions against women’s boundaries, by the time he’s 25 years old, every man has crossed some sexual boundary with some woman at some time. The transgressions may be minor: looking a little too long in the wrong place … pressing his interest in her (or in sex with her) a little past the point at which it became clear she did not share his interest … deliberate physical contact passed off as accidental … catcalling and wolf-whistling at women passing by … briefly following a woman because he likes the way she looks. Some are truly problematic … following a woman around a store or mall or public place (even if she doesn’t notice) … grabbing women who are out by themselves (“just because”) … other stalker behaviors … and pornography which treats women as objects for male sexual gratification rather than as human beings. Some are clearly criminal: various levels of sexual assault, including rape. All of these are problems. All of these are transgressions of women’s boundaries and personhood. Just about every man has done at least one of these on at least one occasion. But to treat them all as rapists isn’t helpful. Only rape is rape. Lesser violations certainly are not equivalent to rape, but they shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed either.
#MeToo caught fire because all women have a story or experience of harassment to share. Not all our stories are the same, but they all count … they just don’t all count in the same way. Likewise, not all men are the same in their violations of women’s boundaries – and it is wrong to treat them all as though they were. If we demand that, for any man to have a role in public life, he must never have engaged in any transgressions of any woman’s sexual boundaries, then no men would be allowed. Some may be okay with that (“Serves them right.” “It’s about time.” “Let them be out of power for a few centuries and see how they like it.” “Turnabout is fair play.” Etc.). I’m not okay with that; I don’t think it’s helpful.
Melodramatic “pearl clutching” is equally useless. (“I’m so afraid for the men … my husband/my son … any woman could accuse him of something he didn’t do and completely destroy his career.”) However, if we’re bound and determined to exile any man who’s ever done anything a woman finds offensive, then it isn’t safe for men to acknowledge what they’ve done. Like I said, I would have preferred Brent Kavanaugh to acknowledge what he did (or even that although he did remember the specifics, concede it was quite possible he had done this) and then explain how he became a better, different person. But it isn’t safe for him to do so. One need only look to the multiple examples of men being drummed out of public life for acknowledging (or being unable to convincingly deny) any form of sexual transgressions against women. The fate of Senator Al Franken might be the closest comparison.
Such absolutist positions are not helpful. We have to be able to talk – and to hear each other. To have the conversation, we need to make it safe for women to tell their stories – and we need it make it safe for men to take responsibility for their actions … and to change … and to grow and become better people. Dr. Christine Blassey Ford and all women need to be able to tell their stories and have them heard and considered. Brent Kavanaugh and all men need to be able to acknowledge what they have done, take responsibility for their actions, and demonstrate change.
This is the only way things are really going to get better… the only way we’re be able to put an end to these experiences for most people in our society … the only way it stops. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all really want?