After the Kavanaugh Allegations, Republicans Offer a Shocking Defense: Sexual Assault Isn’t a Big Deal

By Jia Tolentino

September 20, 2018

Many conservatives have reacted as if they believe the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, defending the right of a Supreme Court Justice to have previously attempted to commit rape.
Photograph by Mark Peterson / Redux for The New Yorker

Ever since the professor Christine Blasey Ford revealed that she was the woman who had accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, in a previously confidential letter, the conservative attempt to protect Kavanaugh from her story has been, to put it mildly, forceful. Ford claims that, in the early nineteen-eighties, when they were both attending prestigious private high schools in suburban Maryland, Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a party. Republicans have framed this story as a craven act of character assassination rather than an account worth investigating before Kavanaugh receives a lifetime appointment to make pivotal decisions about the future of the nation—including decisions about, for example, the options that will be available to women if they get pregnant after being raped.

Kavanaugh says that Ford’s story is not true. He told the Washington Post, “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation.” Some of his allies appear to have settled on a strategy of insisting that Ford is simply mistaken—that she may well have been assaulted, but that it must have been someone else. (This theory quickly reached “Twin Peaks” levels of absurdity, with a conservative Post contributor writing a column titled “Is There a Kavanaugh Doppelganger?”) Other Kavanaugh supporters believe that Ford is outright lying, for political purposes. The conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who tweeted that he does not find the allegations “credible in any way, shape, or form,” later wrote, referring to Roe v. Wade, “Y’all, I’m sorry, but I have little patience for a group of people willing to destroy an innocent man so they can keep killing kids. And that’s exactly what this is about.”

But a startling number of conservative figures have reacted as if they believe Ford, and have thus ended up in the peculiar position of defending the right of a Supreme Court Justice to have previously attempted to commit rape—a stance that at once faithfully corresponds to and defiantly refutes the current Zeitgeist. These defenders think that the seventeen-year-old Kavanaugh could easily, as Ford alleges, have gotten wasted at a party, pushed a younger girl into a bedroom, pinned her on a bed, and tried to pull off her clothes while covering her mouth to keep her from screaming. They think this, they say, because they know that plenty of men and boys do things like this. On these points, they are in perfect agreement with the women who have defined the #MeToo movement. And yet their conclusion is so diametrically opposed to the moral lessons of the past year that it seems almost deliberately petulant. We now mostly accept that lots of men have committed sexual assault, but one part of the country is saying, “Yes, this is precisely the problem,” and the other part is saying, “Yes, that is why it would obviously be a non-issue to have one of these men on the Supreme Court.”

The people who appear willing to believe Ford include Rod Dreher, the American Conservative writer, who tweeted, “I do not understand why the loutish drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge.” The former congressman Joe Walsh tweeted, “If stupid, bad, or drunken behavior as a minor back in high school were the standard, every male politician in Washington, DC would fail.” An anonymous lawyer close to the White House told Politico, “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.” Bari Weiss, the Times opinion columnist, said, on MSNBC, that she believed Ford, and then asked, “What about the deeper, moral, cultural, like, the ethical question here? Let’s say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a seventeen-year-old presumably very drunk kid did this—should this be disqualifying?” On Fox News, Ari Fleischer said, “How much in society should any of us be held liable today when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school? Should that deny us chances later in life?” (Donald Trump, of course, called for the execution of the Central Park Five when they were teen-age rape suspects, and, as recently as 2016, continued to call them guilty, though they were exonerated by DNA evidence.)

What’s surfacing in these comments is something that has, up until now, mostly been dodged, or left unspoken: that it has traditionally been accepted for men to sexually assault women, particularly at parties, particularly when they’re young. But the fact that this behavior has been tacitly understood as permissible does not mean that people—even while young, even while drunk at parties—have understood it to be O.K. It’s true that our earliest sexual experiences tend to be messy and confusing, and that this is, to some degree, inevitable and natural. It’s also true that, even in the Reagan era, and even to a sloppy and inexperienced teen-ager, preventing someone from screaming in fear during a sexual encounter is a stunningly clear and universally recognized sign that something is wrong. (On Tuesday, a female high-school student tweeted, “the emergence of this whole ‘teenage boys should get a pass because they’re not mature enough to understand consent’ narrative is probably one of the most unsettling things I have ever witnessed.”) Kavanaugh’s defenders are putting plainly a previously euphemized message: white and wealthy teen-age boys have the right to engage in criminal sexual cruelty as long as they later get a good job, start a family, and “settle down.” (Alexandra DeSanctis, a staff writer for the conservative National Review, has tried to push back on this message from the inside, arguing that “Kavanaugh’s supporters can best defend his character by seeking the truth, not by diminishing the significance of sexual assault.”)

The variation on this theme that may have bothered me the most came from Carrie Severino, the policy director for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network. On CNN, Severino said that Ford’s version of events could be describing anything from “boorishness to rough horseplay.” (In other words, it wasn’t attempted rape; it was a word that people use to cover up attempted rape.) It would appear that Severino, and those who have made similar comments, have no idea—and not much interest in understanding—what being on the other end of this sort of “horseplay” feels like.

Like Ford and Kavanaugh, I went to a private high school where excess and entitlement abounded. Reading the details of Ford’s account, and listening to Kavanaugh’s defenders since, I have found myself thinking about something I’d almost forgotten: a night when I was home from college for the summer, at a house party, where a group of friends drained a couple of bottles of tequila and bourbon. Late in the evening, one guy at the party said that he was going to pass out, and asked me to come upstairs and tuck him in. I did, wasted and giggling, and then he pulled me onto the bed, briefly trapping me, kissing me, saying all sorts of things. I struggled against him, and after a fierce, alarming tussle—“rough horseplay”—I wrenched myself free. This did not traumatize me, but the feeling was unmistakable. He was trying to establish that he could make me do whatever he wanted—an essentially violent impulse, familiar to anyone who has ever been forced into an encounter she cannot control.

While writing this, I went back to my diary, to see how I described, at the time, what occurred. “That’s where I went wrong, agreeing to tuck him in,” I wrote. “But tucking people in is so adorable. I wish I could be tucked in, you know? . . . He pulled me on the bed and kissed me, and I had no idea what to do. I see him every night, even though we just met this summer. He’s a good guy. I couldn’t, like, slap him.” A few paragraphs later, I wrote, “Fuck. I kept trying to leave! He kept fucking pulling me on him. I finally got out. I keep asking myself how I could have handled it . . . I was afraid to be rude.” I decided that I was “an enormous idiot, and I feel taken advantage of. That’s what they call it, isn’t it? Unwanted sexual advances? I wish there was an absolute jury, to tell me how much is my fault. Because I feel so guilty that I feel like that’s a sign that it was my fault.” I continued to berate myself, even after writing that there was “no acquiescence. It was someone kissing me, and me trying to get away.”  Men are so afraid, in this moment, that they will suddenly be held accountable for things they always thought they could get away with. But look at how profoundly inertia is on their side. After this party, which took place not even a decade and a half ago, I told one friend and my boyfriend about what happened. I didn’t tell anyone else. I knew, without anyone having to explain it to me, that this was a common and unremarkable incident—that everyone, including me, had been shaped by the disgraceful understanding that he had the right to make me uncomfortable but that I did not have the right to make him uncomfortable by telling others what he did. I think of Ford not telling anyone—“in any detail,” the Post reported—about what happened to her until 2012. Why would you tell someone about a stupid high-school party where some stupid kid pushed you down on a bed and groped you when you can summon a hundred voices reminding you that tons of guys do this, that it’s no big deal? I am certain that the boy who pulled me onto the bed has no memory of it now. I hope, sincerely, that he has a good life. But I wouldn’t put him on the Supreme Court.

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