Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh and seven useful insights about sexual violence

Protest in St Louis, 2 October 2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Last Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the judiciary committee of the US Senate. She said that Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee for the Supreme Court, had attempted to rape her when she was 15. He denied it. She told the truth and he was lying. Everyone in the room knew this, including all eleven Republican senators.

What happened next was something else. The Republican senators rallied to defend the right to rape. Sure, class also mattered, and abortion, and Trump, and the midterm elections. But centrally, they did not want Kavanaugh to pay a price for his sexual violence. An extraordinary moment of #metoo resistance had provoked that Republican backlash, and they closed ranks fast and hard.

When a system is working smoothly the mechanics of power are hidden. But when there is a breakdown, a ‘breach case’, we sometimes have an opportunity to see how the system works. And the links and deep loyalties that keep inequality in place become visible. The hearing has offered such an opportunity. It gives us a chance to formulate seven useful ideas about sexual violence.


The first thing the breach case exposed were the links between class and sexual predation.

We have learned that at Kavanaugh’s high school, Georgetown Prep, jocks punched nerd boys hard in the balls, in the hallways, routinely, over and over again.

We also learnedKavanaugh belonged to the same fraternity at Yale as George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr., Delta Gamma Epsilon (the Dekes). Six years ago, as part of the initiation into the Dekes freshmen boys at Yale paraded through the campus chanting, ‘No means Yes, Yes means Anal.’

We have learned too that at Yale, Kavanaugh joined a secret drinking society formally called ‘Truth and Courage’, but known to all at ‘Tits and Clits.

And other connections have been exposed. The students at Yale Law School have gone into occupation, and classes are being cancelled. We hear that Amy Chua, the author of the vicious book on Tiger Moms, is a professor there. Students and ex-students are angry because she was the point person who sent Yale women to clerk for Kavanaugh, and advised them on how to dress and groom themselves for him. We learn that Chua’s husband, Jeb Rubenfeld, who wrote a racist book with Chua, has been suspended while his behavior with female students is being investigated.

In short, an education into the US elite is saturated with misogyny, sexual violence and predation.


The second useful idea that the breach case brings into clear focus starts with a premise basic to both democracy and human psychology.

Part of growing up is learning to tell when people are lying and when they are telling the truth. We need this skill to survive. It takes time, and some of us are better at it than others. Sometimes we cannot tell or cannot be sure. But the foundation of a jury system is that the average person can be trusted to judge if a witness is telling the truth or not. This is particularly easy when there are only two opposing witnesses. And in this case, everyone in the Senate hearing room knew Blasey Ford was telling the truth.


Our third idea concerns the outpouring of visceral feeling against Kavanaugh from women and, as many have commented, from men as well. Those men are not only acting from solidarity with women. They are men who were bullied in high school, by big, strong rich boys – hit and humiliated. As men they have been bullied by supervisors, lawyers and teachers. Many men, when they saw and listened to Blasey Ford, could see a more extreme version of their own suffering and subordination.


But the relationship between dominant and subordinate men is not the whole story. Many have commented on how many women have supported Kavanaugh. The fourth useful insight comes from considering that, among others, almost all the Republican women in Congress support him. Even though they too certainly know he is lying.

To understand why such women support Kavanaugh, we need to put sexual violence in context. Most men do not assault women. Yet a third of American women have been assaulted. So let’s estimate that half of offenders assault only one woman, and the other half assault an average of ten women. That means only 6% of men need to offend for 33% of women to be attacked.

Only a few men are active offenders on this scale. Yet the overwhelming majority of men in positions of power – managers, company lawyers, deans, bishops – cover up sexual violence. Usually they let it go. Sometimes they admonish or fire the person. Almost always, the offense is hushed up and kept secret, so the other abused women and men come to believe that if they speak out, they will get no redress.

The overwhelming majority of women in positions of power do the same as their male colleagues. They too act to protect sexual predators from being outed or punished. The men and women who do this often say they are doing it to protect the institution. But in the process, they uphold the right to rape as a basic right for men in power.

Only a few men rape, but the great majority of men and women in power protect them when they do.


How does this work, you ask. Fear is the answer, and our fifth insight is made crystal clear by the breach case.

Look what the Republicans did. First they heard and saw Blasey Ford and knew she was telling the truth.

Then Kavanaugh came in shouting that he was the victim of the Democrats. He said they were spending millions of dollars from secret rich donors on the left, and seeking revenge for Kavanaugh’s involvement in the Kenneth Starr impeachment of Billl Clinton. But even more important was Kavanaugh’s tone. He was performing, and feeling, rage. And his rage conveyed a message. Kavanaugh was inviting the Republican senators to join him, and Trump, in making anyone who dared stand in their way afraid.

In the hearing the Republicans had ceded their question time to the woman sex crimes prosecutor. She had questioned Blasey Ford gently on their behalf. She questioned Kavanaugh gently too, bringing down the temperature. But that was not what Kavanaugh wanted.

The woman sex crimes prosecutor took Kavanaugh through the daily calendar he had kept in the summer of 1982, and  she called attention to one date. There it was: – a party in the late afternoon, attended by Kavanaugh himself and the two other boys Blasey Ford had named. The prosecutor pointed this out to Kavanaugh. And at that point Republican Senator Lindsay Graham stepped in to take over from her.

Graham threatened the Democratic Senators, and wavering Republicans, with unspecified consequences. It was not just the content of Graham’s words that conveyed his threat, but the tone. Graham’s face and whole body were twisted with rage, his mouth snarling words.

Blasey Ford had begun her testimony in the morning by saying she was terrified. Now Graham was saying to everyone in the room –‘Be terrified’. He was rallying the troops, and making it clear that even when a woman is telling the truth, she must be punished.

It was an extraordinary, naked moment, and the Republican troops rallied.

Trump, Graham and all the other Republicans could have let Kavanaugh go. They could then have rushed through the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an anti-abortion conservative and a woman. They could be pretty sure Barrett had abused no one, though she might have covered up abuse at one time or the other. There would be time to confirm her in the legislative session after the midterm elections but before the new senators took office. The Republicans would still get their conservative supreme court with a majority of justices prepared to take away the right to an abortion.

But even with a Republican nominee in place, the #metoo moment would have won a decisive victory on a global stage. No rapist or harasser in America, and no institution or manager who had concealed rape or harassment, could feel safe.

That’s our fifth insight. The Republican senators have been less concerned with defeating abortion than with defending the right of the powerful to rape. That is exactly what normally happens in colleges, courts and corporations. But it is normally hidden.  It has become visible in this breach case because of the power of Blasey Ford’s testimony, the scale of the #metoo resistance, and the peril of the moment for the powerful.


Our sixth useful insight is about why Trump and the senators decided to hang onto Kavanaugh rather that go with Barrett.

Any system of oppression is a continuum. But that oppression is always anchored by the threat of violence.

For example, the threat of violence anchors a whole racist system of criminal justice in America. The great majority of American cops never shoot a black man. But the small minority who do so are protected afterwards.

Sexism is likewise best seen as a continuum, ranging from arguments over washing dishes through inappropriate remarks to dominant men humiliating subordinate males, beating up gay men and lesbians and raping women. The threat of violence anchors that continuum. At the extremes this leads to gang rape and systematic military rape. And while the  great majority of men never rape, the small minority who do are protected afterwards.

Women who are attacked pay the price. But so do others who can’t protect themselves: women, gay men, lesbians and trans people. Because they always have to be ‘careful’, because they have to remember every day that they are afraid. And that fear keeps the system in place.

Of course, sometimes men are convicted of rape. But they are very few. All over the world there are informal rules that make poor women, and women of the wrong caste or colour, especially vulnerable to powerful men. And there are informal rules that poor men, men of the wrong caste or colour, can be punished severely for raping women of higher status – whether or not they are innocent.

There are other contradictions too. A whole system of sexist morality demands sexual modesty, and therefore officially condemns rape, even when the enabling of rape and harassment is routine, but routinely hidden. That is why the first rule of the oppressors is: If you must make an accusation, don’t do it in public.

The threat of rape anchors sexism, and sexism anchors a whole world of inequality. Before we can speak, before we can remember, we all learn to regard sexual inequality as normal and part of the natural order. We learn this from people who love us – our parents, teachers and friends, by the way they love us and each other. And sexual inequality anchors inequality wherever it appears. So when push comes to shove, inequality is what the Republicans must protect.


The seventh insight we gain from the breach case concerns Kavanaugh’s bullying of the Democratic senators. Those senators are experienced politicians, a number of them former prosecutors who in a courtroom would never have allowed a witness to talk over them and silence them the way he did. Yet all of them but Corey Brooker went easy on the man.

They concentrated on his drinking, not his raping. They said we cannot know for sure. They talked about credibility, not lying. Not one of them said that Lindsey Graham too knew Kavanaugh was lying.

Why? For one thing, the Democratic senators were trying to win over the one wavering Republican senator on the committee, Jeff Flake, to secure an FBI investigation. For that purpose, they felt they had to appear reasonable. But they would have appeared just as reasonable to expect the same courtesy from Kavanaugh as from a courtroom witness. So something else was also going on. The bottom line, it seems, is that Kavanaugh could bully them because they had been bullied before.

No one comes up in the world of politics or the law without being bullied. And they all knew the informal rules that protected rapists. They may have chafed and loathed those rules. But all their lives they had been part of institutions that hide and, in effect, condone harassment and rape – whether in a church organisation, the military, a university, or the Democratic Party itself. The Democratic senators were crossing the line in calling out Kavanaugh, and that made them feel afraid.


Our breach case has afforded us seven insights into the usually covert workings of power. But it also shows how resistance can limit that power.

Maybe their strategy of turning Senator Flake and appealing to the FBI will work, and maybe not. But it only worked at all because two women trapped Flake in an elevator and told him the full truth about their rapes, shouting and screaming.

Maybe Kavanaugh’s nomination will be overturned, but maybe not. Either way, Blasey Ford’s courage was only possible because a legion of women, and men, had told the truth before. Some went to the management, the police, the media or the courts. But even telling one person, privately, made a difference, and from this groundswell has come #metoo. Blasey Ford’s bravery, in turn, will make it possible for many more to speak.

Her testimony happened in a room, in Washington, in America. But it was not an American moment. All over the world, the movement against sexual violence has been building for years, gathering pace. In India, Britain, South Africa, China, and in the place where you live.



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