Rape Culture and the Kavanaugh hearings

Even in 2018, survivors of sexual assault can't get justice -- on any stage

The Brett Kavanaugh hearing yesterday showed that even during a period of heightened public consciousness around sexual assault, rape culture wins out.

Rape culture is institutionalized attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that normalize violence against women and in turn condone, conceal, and perpetuate sexual violence. In our rape culture, the accused’s tears fall heavier than that of the accuser; in our rape culture, the accused quickly becomes the victim.  

The senators allowed Kavanaugh to play the victim

Here are the ways in which rape culture played out in yesterday’s hearing:

  1. Other women speaking to the integrity of Kavanaugh’s character does not mean that he could never sexually assault someone.

Senator Kamala Harris asked an acute question that got to the heart of this issue. She asked Kavanaugh: “is it possible to be friends with women and treat other women badly?” The answer is absolutely. You can have good characteristics – like being a good father or coach — and still be someone who harms other people. Those attributes do not automatically disqualify you from being a perpetrator of sexual violence. This is because in rape culture we are all socialized to believe that women’s bodies are objects to be dominated and controlled for male consumption and pleasure. Whether we hold and act on these beliefs consciously or not, we live in a culture that sends these subliminal messages and all of us receive them. We all actively participate in rape culture in some ways and in other ways we do not. For example, we can support our female friends and at the same time allow our male friends to engage in “locker room” talk behind closed doors.  

Attesting to someone’s character as a defense against sexual assault means nothing. Just because Kavanaugh did not assault the women who spoke to his character, does not mean he should get a pat on the back and a pass for any future complaints. Just because he was a good student, attended church, and did service projects, does not mean he was free of the attitudes that led to aggressive and violent behavior towards women. Anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual violence, just as anyone can be a survivor.

  1. Drinking does not cause sexual violence; the person drinking, and the culture in which they are socialized, does.

Senate Democrats wasted a huge opportunity to delve into Kavanaugh’s attitude towards women and girls by focusing so heavily on his pattern of drinking. Although, I do understand the point they were trying to establish – he could have assaulted these three women and not remember it specifically. They would have had more impact if they framed the yearbook, for example, and other testimony that referred to Kavanaugh’s aggressive belligerence, as signs that reveal a pattern of misogynistic and oppressive thinking towards women. Those who sexually assault people when they are drunk do not do so because of the alcohol, but because of the attitudes they already have which are amplified when they are drinking.

  1. Women and their bodies are a battleground for power.

This was the case in more ways than one way yesterday. First, Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell was a sad attempt by Senate Republicans to hide their desire to undermine and poke holes in Dr. Ford’s testimony. In essence, Dr. Ford was on trial. She was being questioned by a prosecutor, who happened to slip out half way through Kavanaugh’s “questioning.” Prosecutor Mitchell was a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing – that clothing was her womanhood and her soft demeanor which hid the ugliness behind the Senate Republican’s line of questioning.

Sexual violence is about power over women’s bodies and yesterday we saw Democrats and Republicans battling for power over the violation of Dr. Ford’s body. Yet, this was all done in coded language, which appeared to be the most visible impact, and perhaps the only impact, of #MeToo on the hearing. Instead of calling Dr. Ford a liar outright, Kavanaugh skirted around the issue by saying he believed she was assaulted but not by him. Similarly, Senate Republicans alleged a last minute political stunt by Democrats without directly calling Dr. Ford a political pawn with a phony story. A political stunt by Democrats may well be the case, but it does not necessarily mean that Dr. Ford’s story was untrue. In reality, Dr. Ford had nothing to gain from this – not politically or otherwise. After Dr. Ford exited the hearing and her rightful place in the conversation, her story was painted as a figment of her imagination created in part by the Democrats. At the same time, Dr. Ford became a passive participant in a memory that was wrongly recollected. In the end, her sexual assault amounted to nothing more than a political strategy.

  1. Very few women have access to credibility and even those with Dr. Ford’s privilege will not be believed.

This needs to be said even though it is uncomfortable. I believe Dr. Ford, as I believe all survivors regardless of their race, class, education, etc. It is important to highlight, however, that Dr. Ford has “credibility” that most survivors do not. This is because sexual assault is about power and control and typically those without power are the ones most often victimized. Dr. Ford is highly educated, well-spoken, and white. If her story is disregarded and the process made so difficult for her, can you imagine how hard it would be for a survivor without her same social standing? If Kavanaugh turns into the victim under the weight of Dr. Ford’s story – the story of a Stanford Professor – can you really blame any survivor for not wanting to put themselves through the same hell? On that note…

  1. In rape culture, being accused of sexual assault ruins lives more than the assault itself.

There were many emotional moments yesterday, most of which came from Brett Kavanugh. There were a number of apologies and sympathies extended by the Senate Republicans firstly to Kavanaugh and some perfunctory apologies made to Dr. Ford. This happens firstly because in a case of “he said, she said,” what he said almost always wins. Yes, there is a presumption of innocence in this country that is rightly in place. But with this presumption of innocence there is conversely a presumption of deception or even guilt on the side of the survivor coming forward. The criminal justice system is simply not set up to serve justice to survivors of sexual assault. Sexual assault typically happens between two people, who most often know each other, with very few witnesses present. In reality, the pursuit of legal justice for survivors is over before it even begins.

In this way, Kavanaugh’s humanity comes first. We saw this with shots of his family behind him, the tears, the female support that nullifies the pain of Dr. Ford’s family (who, by the way, we did not even see).

In the end, Kavanaugh’s humanity outweighed Dr. Ford’s.

Yesterday was a despicable, yet sadly expected, display of rape culture and the actors that keep it alive. It is not just Senate Republicans; it is the Democrats who endlessly focused on alcohol; it is the women like Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell and friends of Kavanaugh who use their standing as females to undercut another female’s story.

This is rape culture. And we are all a part of it. It’s time to upend our role in it so we can collectively dismantle institutional beliefs that allow violence against women to continue and perpetrators of such violence to go unaccountable.