Kavanaugh’s Confirmation And #MeToo At A Crossroads: Why This Moment Matters

There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the crossroads of history and must choose which way to go.”

- Lal Bahadur Shastri

Photo courtesy of Alex Brandon/the Associated Press

The end of my spring semester of my junior year at college, someone I knew was raped twice while she was intoxicated at a party off campus. I was the one who found her when I went to pick her up, discovering her in a state of undress and very visibly upset. Both assailants were men we knew, one in a position of arguable authority in our lives (he was our RA).

I will not go into further details of the incident itself as it isn’t my story to tell (she and I are no longer in touch and no one who knows me still from that period in my life will know who this person is or any of the others involved, so their anonymity is protected here). The day after the assault, she and I and her roommate (who was her childhood best friend) spent several hours in a group therapy session, after which she decided to file charges at the urging of the counselor. But she soon pulled out of the process shortly after reporting the assault to campus police, when some neighbors in our dormitory began to treat her with animosity and outright anger.

Ultimately, she didn’t think her story would be believed, and that her drinking would be used against her. She wasn’t willing to risk her reputation and make more enemies than she already had by just speaking up a little. The sad thing was she wasn’t wrong about the risks: statistics have consistently shown assault victims are rarely believed and their assailants almost always get off scot-free. In fact, it can cost survivors dearly to speak out — their jobs, their income, even sometimes their lives (as in, their literal lives).

Yet, while I was in college during the latter 1990s and very early 2000s, date rape was such a frequent experience among my friends as to be an epidemic. And the one thing they all had in common is that all these incidents were kept quiet, a secret stashed away by the women who had suffered them so as not to become a target of the abuse and shame society would surely further inflict on them for what they had been through.

While the aftermath of the Anita Hill hearings seemed to usher in a new era of consciousness, finally introducing terms like “sexual harassment” and “date rape” into mainstream lexicon, the actions of young men at my campuses and those across the country seemed to be taking much longer to catch up with the changing rhetoric.

We may have no longer been in the 1980s, with its rampant raunchy movies essentially encouraging rape and assault, but we were still being bombarded by conflicting messages as to where the line should be drawn when it came to consent and whose stories mattered more. During my freshman orientation, we even had to attend a whole seminar on date rape, in which I was first made aware of the concept that someone who has had too much alcohol (to the point of passing out and being incoherent) cannot consent. But nonetheless, assault of this nature seemed to happen routinely during my university years to more women I knew than I’d care to count.

While I myself managed to exit college and young adulthood without becoming a victim of rape myself, it was definitely not due to a lack of trying on the parts of some would-be assailants.

There is the man who sat in my classes and on the editorial board of the literary journal with me, who date raped my friend, and who followed me home from the bar one night, not leaving me alone no matter how many times I asked. When we got to my building, I made a mad dash for the door and ran upstairs to my suite, only for him to somehow get inside my building anyway and incessantly knock on my door for many minutes, insisting I invite him in and even let him “crash” there and that it was “rude” of me to refuse him access to my room.

There was a housemate’s drunk friend the summer of 2000 who stumbled into my room and sat on my bed at the crack of dawn, unzipping his pants and telling me everything would be okay if I let him jerk off for me (Instead, I screamed and started cursing him out).

There is the man I dated briefly in my early twenties a few months after I first moved to Massachusetts, who during a massage he gave me while I was between apartments and staying with him at his place (we were no longer together romantically at this time), pinned me down on the bed and did not listen when I said “stop” more than once as he continually kissed me and tugged at my clothing. I finally kneed him in his mid-section, sending him tumbling off the bed. I barricaded the bedroom door after he left and didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. Luckily, I found my own place a couple of days later and we stopped speaking altogether. Our mutual friends to this day do not know why.

And so, I watched the confirmation hearings the week before last with mixed feelings of awe and misery, wishing it would go one way and yet mostly suspecting it would end in another. After all, the Anita Hill case had proven a powerful man could not be toppled by accusations of sexual misconduct no matter how credible. It was also worth noting the backdrop of these more recent hearings were now occurring with a man in the White House occupying the most powerful position in the nation who had been accused multiple times of sexual assault and who admitted (that is, bragged) about as much on a hot mic.

Yet, I still held out hope it would be different this time.

Because both the Hill hearings and Trump’s election to the presidency had occurred before the #MeToo movement took off, I was hoping its momentum would finally lend some much-needed leverage to the credibility of assault survivors in ALL instances, not just those the powers that be would allow. If anything, the Kavanaugh hearings served as a litmus test to #MeToo: could we crash the glass ceiling of our sexual oppression once and for all? Or would the highest ranks of our government —ruled this time around by the members of the GOP — smack us down and let us know we were striving for too much in wanting to be believed when we say we were assaulted?

As I wrote late last month on Medium, this hearing had the power to completely turn tide, changing the course of this country that seems to be heading backwards, to finally lead us on a path to embracing sexual equality and justice. Instead, the GOP not only voted for a man who perjured himself repeatedly (most notably, on the meanings of turns of phrase that referenced sex acts and drinking) and who was credibly accused of assault, but even took their cues from old, worn playbooks on victim-blaming the survivors.

Senator Orrin Hatch was personally affronted that something from someone’s teenage years could be relevant now (does he feel the same outrage when a black boy’s marijuana use is conjured after he’s killed by cops or civilians?). The insinuation here is that sexual assault can simply be a matter of a youthful indiscretion on par with playing hooky or toilet papering someone’s home. Senator Grassley even took to releasing the testimony of a former boyfriend of another Kavanaugh accuser, Julia Swetnick, alleging she had confided in him that she liked group sex. Senator Collins asserted that gang rape was such an egregious accusation that she indicated during her speech revealing her support of Kavanaugh that the excessive nature of the charge alone made it invalid.

Of course, it seems Grassley and his buddies didn’t get the memo that what one’s preferences are in their private CONSENSUAL sex life is not relevant to whether or not they were raped. A woman can both like group sex and be gang raped (though it is also likely this testimony is just horseshit, with the sheer purpose to slut-shame). It would seem the GOP believes rape is just sex women regret for some reason and that any accusations that arise, if they are not actually a case of mistaken identity, are then some sort of retribution for such regret. This follows the stereotype of women as naturally vindictive —carved out of the essence of the Old Testament’s Eve and so worthy of punishment of a Biblical proportion; that is, when women are capable of any sort of agency at all. After all, several of the Republican men who sit on the Judiciary Committee have been in the Senate since before marital rape was even federally recognized as a crime. When it came to women’s bodies, they were still more or less their husband’s properties on the legal level in quite a few states until well into the 1990s.

As for the sham FBI investigation — conducted in less than one week and only interviewing a tiny fraction of the dozens of people who came forward with relevant testimony (and conspicuously omitting to speak to either Ford or Kavanaugh at all) — it is actually somewhat of a snapshot of how survivors’ cases are often treated those few times they do come forward. For all the talk of fairness, it seems that the default presumption in most cases is that the woman is lying and as such, any investigation conducted is with the goal to prove the accused’s innocence. FYI: that’s not how “innocent until proven guilty works.” The burden is still on the system to consider ALL of the relevant evidence, not purposefully overlook or ignore that which might incriminate the accused.

Considering this deeply entrenched precedent, Kavanaugh’s hearing could be merely called par for the course, a continuation of business as usual. However, that he was confirmed at a historically low margin with more resistance than even marked Clarence Thomas’ confirmation after the Anita Hill hearings, should not be downplayed. It should be seized upon.

While Republicans are playing up to their base and Trump is taking to the media to warn of what a scary time it is for men in America, kicking up a potential backlash against the #MeToo, we actually can find a shred of hope and resistance in this darkness on which to build and bring in some light.

As Ford was testifying, there was an uptick in women coming forward to C-SPAN and other news outlets with their own stories of assault. While the final outcome of the hearing may have the effect of silencing some (or even many) survivors, I hope it will embolden more to share their stories. Whatever scare tactics the patriarchy may try to employ, it is too late to go back to the pre-#MeToo era. We’re here now, and there’s no way to go but ahead.

Progress is never linear….it’s always been one step forward and usually several steps back. But as Martin Luther King, Jr has noted, progress is neither automatic or inevitable. It takes sacrifice and dedication, but ultimately the path will bend toward justice. I hope survivors are not scared back into the shadows (though I don’t blame them if they are).

For those who will speak out, who will stand at the crossroads and decide to travel on toward a new path rather than be beat back: I will stand with you and I will speak up.

You are not alone. We can do this together.

Writer w/bylines in the Atlantic, Guardian, Salon, Vice, Politico, etc., covering feminism, sustainability, health. My Patreon is @ https://bit.ly/2YrfCPA

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