Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s revelation to the Senate Judicial Committee that she was sexually assaulted back in the 1980s by the current Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, hits many American women like myself with a weary sense of deja-vu and hindsight. It’s been nearly three decades since Anita Hill raised similar concerns about another Supreme Court nominee’s sexual impropriety and unwanted advances, and only a year after the #MeToo movement routed out the “open secret” that power dynamics in a male-privileging world have led to the sexual abuse of women at every level of society.
Blasey Ford’s allegation says that a drunken Kavanaugh demonstrated sexual dominance, violence, and lack of self-restraint. Why is this relevant to the Supreme Court nomination process? Because as women, our social and emotional intelligence–and our life experiences–tell us that such behavior is rooted in a certain kind of underlying attitude that diminishes us as human beings.
Many women are apprehensive that Kavanaugh will use his decades-long practice in dissimulating and obfuscating legal language to cloak this underlying attitude in a sophisticated veneer. As a Supreme Court judge, he can render decisions that negatively impact American women’s lives for generations. At risk is the decision to make access to abortion illegal, an issue of the right of adult women to determine their own reproductive choices.
Since Blasey Ford’s account went public, an animated and often anguished conversation in our virtual, national town-square has largely bolstered the credibility of the allegations. Many voices, significantly including every one of the Democratic Senators on the Judicial Committee, are raising objections about men who are accused of sexual assault, as Kavanaugh is, being placed in positions of such enormous consequence to public life and especially to the female half of society.
The stories told about this accused Supreme Court nominee don’t however, fall strictly along gender lines. Political affiliation is an organizing principle of belief structures around which Americans identify themselves; giving people a way to filter their social lives as well as a sense of tribal belonging…and a sense of moral righteousness. American women remain divided today largely along political lines (Republican versus Democrat) about the veracity of Blasey Ford’s account and its bearing on the nomination process.
Yet during this flashpoint of collective social reckoning, I fear that we are being forced to watch an all-too familiar trainwreck. In it, the bombastic and indignant male-narrative train plows through and bulldozes deep, felt truths expressed by women. Power still decides what truths count, and what truths can be shoved aside.
For Kavanaugh to prevail, all he needs to do is categorically deny the allegations, and keep repeating the line. The Republican Senators will make a show of presenting Kavanaugh as the victim enduring a misguided, long-ago teenage girls’ memory that doesn’t rise to the level of a serious allegation. They will diminish the assault as not even full rape–just horseplay by a teen boy, and delegitimize the female accuser. A few consecutive news cycles of powerful men making indignant complaints about a politically motivated “distraction” show might usually enough to sink a female victim’s inconvenient story.
Just as Anita Hill was, Blasey Ford is a highly-credible witness. A university professor with a Ph.D, known for her exacting statistical methods in the field of psychology, her approach demonstrates the very opposite of hyperbole and unfounded claims. Indeed, there are scant few, including the Republican men on the Senate Judicial Committee who seek to push forward this nomination as speedily as possible, willing to pointblank counter Blasey Ford as a liar.
Didn’t the #Metoo movement show that purportedly successful and respectable family men can simultaneously have a dark side and compromising back stories? Will the Republicans on the Judicial Committee be able to bully their way past these problematic allegations to secure this nominee’s Supreme Court seat? And should they prevail, what next? What will be the fall out today of diminishing this thoughtful scholar’s allegations?
At least one reasonable voice thinks there is a problem with the ramrodding the Kavanaugh nomination through. Evan Siegried, a conservative Republican columnist, wrote almost immediately that questions about Kavanaugh’s character resulting from the sexual assault allegations are already damaging the nomination process and indeed the institutional integrity of the Supreme Court itself. He recommends that Kavanaugh withdraw his candidacy because the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and the greater good of the nation is more important than one man. Without even dealing with the sexual assault allegations, David Brock, another conservative media commentator, says that Kavanaugh’s candidacy is flawed because he was groomed as a partisan political operative and would not be an impartial judge.
The Long Arc of Civil Rights
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s might be comparable to this moment in American life where women’s civil rights and continuing unequal power are at stake. Notwithstanding the movement’s iconic face of leadership in Dr. Martin Luther King, the breakthroughs that began to transform American social norms in the 1960s occurred because conversations on human rights, justice, and economic inequality snowballed on multiple fronts. A collective truth telling gained foothold in individual’s minds and hearts, and in the shared reality of their social lives.
Similarly, Blasey Ford’s allegations occur in a context in which the momentum of social truth telling has been building to legitimize women’s words and give weight to their voices. That is why the testimony she offered about the Supreme Court nominee rings true to millions.
The Civil Rights movement has also shown us that change occurs in fits and starts. Uncomfortable social realities of racism continue to affect American civic life. Today, the #BlackLivesMatter movement draws attention to police violence disproportionately affecting the African American community, and seeks the same goals of color-blind equality and respect of the 1960s civil rights movement.
This corollary is perhaps why, no matter the outcome of Kavanaugh’s nomination, the context and significance of Blasey Ford’s protest voice is relevant. Below, I examine the important snowballing backstories that have taken root in our social intelligence about women’s victimization.
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The Supreme Court in Washington DC
#MeToo | The Catholic Church | #WhyIDidn’tReport | Anita Hill | A Witness | Doesn’t Fit Other False Rape Accusations | A Toxic Teen Male Culture | The Polygraph Test | Birds of a Feather: Kavanaugh’s Mentor Kozinski | Wait There Are Others | Witchhunt or Due Methodical Investigation | Social Truth Telling and the Future
The #MeToo movement’s conversations brought us to an almost convulsive socio-cultural awakening about the pervasive, casual and covert abuses of male power over women for sex. As a result of #Metoo, we began to be explicit in naming patriarchal social and economic structures and unequal male-female power dynamics as the source of toxic, skewed relationships. The #Metoo movement made quiet crimes public, shattering the secrecy surrounding male sexual abuse and infractions. The personal became political. The truth of women’s suffering was made spoken aloud, again and again, until it changed our collective social reality.
The fact that so many accomplices (of both genders) aided and abetted abusers’ schemes and generally covered-up abused women’s experiences, revealed unspoken power structures that allowed men to get away with improprieties and crimes. Patriarchy’s privilege was seamlessly woven into our collective socio-cultural DNA. It emboldened men in a culture of impunity. Now more explicit language about male behavioral improprieties pervades our social interactions. Allegations of sexual misconduct and impropriety are more common in almost every domain and workplace.
Against this backdrop of our shifting socio-cultural norms about girls’ and women’s lives, Blasey Ford’s allegations resonate with people as truthful.
The Catholic Church
Revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic church (and the appalling numbers of victims) appear to corroborate the #MeToo movement. Male authority represented in the church’s exclusively male-dominated leadership at every level, became stained by immorality and indecency because there is no worse crime, by any social measure, than the abuse of defenseless, weaker children by those purporting to lead society on ethical and moral issues.
As large numbers of children abused by church leaders have offered up accounts that are accepted as valid decades after the actual incidents, Blasey Ford is subjected to a greasy double-standard about limits of memory and statutes.
Male Republican senators on the Senate Judicial Committee use obfuscation tactics to delegitimize her account, such as suggesting that with the passage of time, her memory might be fuzzy and therefore could not be accurate, or that her allegations are purely politically motivated. Ironically, they are careful to not deny that her story could be real (ironically, because the optics of denying an abused woman are now, thanks to #Metoo, unwise for politically ambitious vote-seekers.)
The President, himself an alleged sexual abuser, was one of those who tweeted out that Ford should simply have gone to the FBI or her parents as a 15-year old girl to report this crime immediately when it happened. (He is accustomed to using this line to refute his own accusers, many of whom came forward only decades later, because they saw no use in reporting the assaults back when they happened, because it was just “socially accepted” as male behavior.)
In response, a number of prominent figures came forward with personal testimony to defend Ford’s decision to address sexual assault trauma in her own time. Charles M. Blow the New York Times writer noted that Blasey Ford’s account is consistent with his own story as a survivor of sexual assault—that the antecedent memories and the context of the incident are not what matters, but that the emotional reality of the incident is vivid and indelible, playing out repeatedly in the personal story of the victim. The Los Angeles Times published experts’ testimony on reasons why sexual abuse survivors go through specific psychological dramas in which reporting their assault as a crime is not an immediate reaction.
Ronald Reagan’s daughter defended Blasey Ford’s in a Washington Post opinion piece, based on her own experience of sexual assault and specifically raising the specter of the exceptional courage that it takes for a woman to speak out against a patriarchal system of power. A contemporary of Ford’s at a nearby girls’ school in Bethesda Maryland, Deborah Copaken, got even more personal in a confessional feature in The Atlantic that also called out the contemporary culture of male sexual impropriety at the elite private school Kavanaugh attended, Georgetown Prep, at the time of his attack on Ford. The common understanding was that boys from his school were notorious as sexual predators. “Any girl who was in high school in Potomac during that era knew, through the whisper network, not to go to a Georgetown Prep party alone,” she remembers.
The avalanche of personal confessions in social media using #WhyIDidn’tReport remind us again, that in the context of patriarchal social structures where male narratives and experiences are privileged, victims survive as the powerless do, by silencing ourselves, by coping, by quietly sharing solidarity, rather than speaking out in public arenas where we will be diminished and disbelieved.
Blasey Ford is again vindicated in the collective social intelligence.
Professor Anita Hill like many women, endured the uncomfortable reality that bringing sexual harassment or abuse to light means being revictimized, when she testified against the nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991. In retrospect, the tactics used by Senators to shut down Anita Hill were chilling, ranging from some flatly denying her words that she felt sexually harassed, to others suggesting that she in fact sought her abuser’s sexual attention and was reacting negatively by accusing him of harassment because he didn’t give her sexual attention. Other senators felt at liberty to impugn her character and to suggest her ‘confusion’ and ‘delusions’ because of her “sexual fantasies”. In the campaign to malign and diminish Anita Hill, the legal team at the Bush White House looked for ways to use a disorder called “erotomania,” in which sufferers believe things that hadn’t happened against her. Ultimately even after an FBI investigation, Thomas was confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.
Years after Anita Hill’s testimony, anyone who reflects on the painful inquisition where she was grilled by an all-male Senate judiciary committee who were not experts in handling sexual harassment, would have to acknowledge in honesty that no woman would confront this horrible theater simply to vacuously make false claims against Clarence Thomas’ character. Nobody would risk the cover of a safe, professional life to be publicly dragged through boorish and demeaning character attacks. She had nothing to gain from coming forward with false allegations and she made no money. Why would anyone lie to, in effect, invite character assassination and psychological trauma?
Hill’s reasons for coming forward to reveal character flaws that made a Supreme Court nominee unfit for an office where he could influence the fate of millions of women, were as heroic as Blasey Ford’s are today. We get why Blasey Ford was reluctant to face the anguish and debilitating mental stress of speaking uncomfortable truths against a judge when the stakes are so high. As unfortunately expected, violent male forces are unleashing assaults on Ford’s life through death threats and doxing (invasions of privacy). She has retreated, with her daughters, into hiding to save her own life.
Most people aren’t able to produce a witness of their abuse. Blasey Ford cites Mark Judge was in the room and participated in the assault. The fact that Mark Judge has written and published a book about teenage drunken debauchery called “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” does not help Kavanaugh’s case. After describing an environment rife with alcohol abuse and misbehavior, Judge also inserts a character specifically named “Bart O’Kavanaugh” (remarkably close to the Supreme Court nominee’s name) who was involved in stupid behavior and excessive drinking. Judge’s silence and denial of any knowledge of the drunken assault doesn’t quite pass a sniff test. In late-breaking information, as I write, his ex-girlfriend Ms. Rasor has spoken publicly about Judge’s private confessions to her, of participating in the group rape of a drunken schoolgirl.
Doesn’t Fit Other False Rape Accusations
Experts have assessed that Blasey Ford’s story doesn’t fit the pattern of false rape accusations. There is nothing lurid or outrageously violent about it. Hers is a story of male domination that is unfortunately remarkably common in the experience of many teenage girls. A lie doesn’t sound like an incident during which she was severely traumatized but was able to walk away.
A Toxic Teen Male Culture
Blasey Ford’s account of teen sexual assault is being corroborated by other graduates of the school she attended. A thousand alumni from Blasey Ford’s school in Potomac Maryland, Holton Arms, have written to Congress in support of her testimony because many of them have either heard about, witnessed, or survived similar cases of sexual assault.
Ironically, Kavanaugh serves as his own character witness regarding the toxic male culture and sexual improprieties at Georgetown Prep, an all-boys school for affluent and socially well-connected families. In a video-recorded speech making the rounds on social media, Kavanaugh refers himself to the shroud of secrecy over the party culture at his school (while also damning the school’s leadership which, he notes, encourages the secrecy), saying “What happens at Georgetown, stays at Georgetown.” This tongue-in-cheek comment seems to be an inside joke and a way to gloss over bad behavior and damage inflicted on others.
On the other hand, there are panels of women willing to testify on television in support of sexual improprieties by teen males. They imply that Kavanaugh’s behavior in jumping on a 15-year old girl, pinning her down, and ripping off her clothes was normal. “Who doesn’t indulge in this kind of behavior?” they claim as a way of diminishing Blasey Ford’s account. It’s not rape, it’s horseplay.
When women serve as character witnesses to normalize toxic masculinity and diminish this type of sexual assault against an unwilling and powerless teen girl, I just can’t even.
Ford took a Polygraph Test…and Passed
Blasey Ford convincingly passed a polygraph test about the veracity of her account (even if a polygraph is virtually useless as a legal test). On the other hand, Kavanaugh has not been subjected to a polygraph test as a part of the nomination process, nor I imagine, would he willingly take one.
Birds of a Feather: Kavanaugh’s Mentor Kozinski Is Accused of Sexual Misconduct
During the nomination process, Kavanaugh denied that he had any knowledge of misconduct by his mentor Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Kavanaugh was one of Kozinski’s star clerks, after which Kozinski helped him find a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, that boosted Kavanaugh’s profile resulting in a subsequent appointment as federal judge.
Alex Kozinski had a notorious reputation for too much interest in young women, and 15 women came forward in 2017 to say that Kozinski had harassed them physically or verbally over the course of his career. He was known to have stored dozens of compromising sexually explicit photographs on his computer. Rather than face their allegations about sexual misconduct, the judge retired. Kavanaugh’s purported blindness to his mentor’s alleged sexually inappropriate behavior strikes people–who have encountered Kozinksi themselves–as willfully disingenuous. They find it difficult to believe Kavanaugh’s claims that he didn’t hear about any impropriety by Kozinski. Laura Gomez, UCLA law professor, writes that the dots she connects between the culture of Kavanaugh’s high school culture, “his socialization into the legal profession by a ribald mentor” and his blindness to the mentor’s missteps, cast doubts on his attitudes and judgements about women’s protections and rights.
Wait There Are Others
Another woman Deborah Ramirez, Kavanaugh’s contemporary at Yale University has come forth with allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct towards her, and a third woman is about to go public with allegations that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge his friend participated in drunken group rapes of teen girls, whom they were responsible for intoxicating. Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for women#3, appears to threaten Kavanaugh, by tweeting that “What happened in Georgetown Prep does not stay in Georgetown Prep.”
On the flip side, a line up of female clerks are willing to testify about Kavanaugh’s great mentorship, and a host of women signed a letter attesting to Kavanaugh’s decency from his time in high school.
Still by most gut checks, it doesn’t seem far fetched to see contradictory impulses rolled into the same person. Although we all may have complex or dark sides would anyone want a Supreme Court judge to have a side so dark that they are accused of violent sexual assault and sexual impropriety?
Witchhunt or Due Methodical Investigation
If anyone in the Judicial Committee claimed that women corroborate Blasey Ford’s words because of their internal personal lie detectors based on life experience, they would be ridiculed. This is not a witch hunt based on your gut would be the swift counter. This is the rational process of rational law.
There’s galling irony in that. First because the Republican Senators are not actually pressing for a formal FBI investigation into the incidents. Second, because the witch hunt was a term to describe the arbitrary process that men in the middle ages used to accuse women, simply on the basis that they had uncomfortable feelings about them. Men could trump up charges against such women they didn’t like, say for challenging male bastions of power usually related to the church, by knowing herbs to ease women’s childbirth pain or heal wounds more effectively than the power of prayer could, then have them put to death by drowning or burning. Why? Because some man simply had a gut dislike of them.
Although our guts may sense Ford’s truth, a witch hunt is hardly what women are advocating. Rather, as Anita Hill asserts in her NY Times editorial, all Americans would be served by a due process of independent third party assessments of these allegations. The testimony should not be a “she said” against a wall of old white men who want to push forward a Supreme Court judge with political sympathies that align with their own. Firmly, she notes, “Our interest in the integrity of the Supreme Court and in eliminating sexual misconduct, especially in our public institutions, are entirely compatible.”
Social Truth Telling and the Future
This story on Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination in light of Blasey Ford’s allegations against him of sexual assault continues to be in flux. With other women coming forward to speak out against him, the Senate Judicial Committee will have to deal with the optics of, not just one but several, women casting doubt on Kavanaugh’s character.
This standoff also reveals that despite recent, emotionally-charged social truth-telling about the abuses of male power, our socio-cultural DNA has an inertia that continues to privilege male voices, and contort our public life in a manner that perpetuates male power.
Women are punished for men’s bad behavior and then punished again because of male power structures within which their testimony is heard, weighed, and filtered. Even in the context of #Metoo, women are rendered more invisible. Tellingly, men who were recently removed under sexual misconduct scandals during #Metoo such as Louis C.K, Matt Lauer, and Aziz Azari, are slowly trickling back to positions of power after a short “time out”.
Yet I feel there is another way in which truth telling is playing out in our societies. It is in the conversations of young people today in civics classes as well as informally, about the nomination process. The conversations casts a spotlight on teen behavior, and the nature of male-female power dynamics and healthy relationships. This is the generation that will speak more explicitly about the politics of power, sexual assault, and its impact on the personal lives of women. I can’t help feeling that their awareness and frankness about this conversation, will turn into the flood of social consciousness that will influence and force a different kind of dynamic in the future.
If we are lucky, today’s young people may live to see a Supreme Court composed of nine women–just to equalize the time that the Court has been composed of men exclusively.