I was a freshman in high school when Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was entering college. I attended a small private college preparatory high school, co-ed and not a boarding school, but certainly in the same orbit as schools like Georgetown Prep. When I graduated I entered a highly regarded university which though public was ranked with the Ivy League, and many of my fellow classmates were products of the same insular, privileged, private high school complex.
I went to parties like the kind of parties described by Kavanaugh’s accusers, because those were the kind of parties that were happening. I longed to get the attention of those aloof handsome preppy boys, because they were the kind of boys we were supposed to want. And yet, we all knew the unspoken rules. You never go to a party like that alone. You never take a drink from someone you don’t know. It’s ok to want a boy’s attention, but it has to be the “right” kind of attention, and you don’t want to do anything to evoke the “wrong” kind of attention.
If you look at the movies aimed at teens and young adults that came out in the late 70s and 80s, you would be hard pressed to find any that didn’t involve raucous parties and boys trying to get laid. Girls seemed to drift around the periphery of these stories, even the ones actually about teenage girls. In the film Sixteen Candles the heroine Sam dreams of being noticed by Jake Ryan. That’s it. She dreams of him. She yearns from afar. She wishes for it. She hopes for it. She almost speaks to him a few times. And he eventually falls for her because he saw her looking at him with her puppy dog eyes and thought she seemed sweet.
Alternatively, Jake’s girlfriend, the beautiful wealthy Caroline is portrayed as kind of awful. She’s openly sexual. She drinks and maybe does drugs. She gets blackout drunk at a party, and then tossed into a car with a stranger to drive her home. She and “the Geek”, our secondary hero, end up having sex that was supposedly consensual although it’s not exactly clear how since both of them were blackout drunk.
We carried a confusing jumble of images of female-hood to those raucous parties that we were promised would be where we found love while having the best time of our lives. Cosmo and Mademoiselle told us to own our sexuality, that there was nothing wrong with being a woman who wants sex, and men appreciate women who are “cool” and don’t have “hang ups”. Movies and tv showed us that while men certainly prefer it when their girlfriends want to have sex, girls who have sex get killed first in horror movies. Girls who put out are sluts. Girls who put out deserve every bad thing that happens to them. Alternatively, girls who didn’t put out were uptight, frigid, and certainly not cool. Girls that didn’t put out also risked being called sluts too, because refusing to have sex with a boy was worthy of as much scorn as agreeing.
Regardless of whether a girl put out or didn’t, any girl at any time could be subject to “boys being boys”. Boys being boys peeking up her dress. Boys being boys pulling off her shirt or skirt in public. Boys being boys tricking her into touching his penis. Boys being boys grabbing her, snapping her bra, teasing her about her breast size. Entire genres of films were based almost exclusively on “boys being boys” peeking through a hole into the girl’s shower.
Over and over again we were told, indirectly or explicitly, that boys bear no responsibility for their actions. If you put yourself in the presence of men, you risk assault. If you give them what they ask for, they will hate you. If you don’t give them what they ask for, they will hate you. They cannot be held responsible for their actions, because boys will be boys. Your only hope as a woman was to stand there and hope that they would see you and your puppy dog eyes and realize without ever speaking that there was something “special” about you. Your gaze would awaken their inner gentleman. You would be worth walking home after the party, to make sure you got home safely. You would be worth seeing again.
Of course this societal attitude is remarkably convenient for a certain kind of man. Men raised in privilege. Men raised to believe they were entitled to the world. Men socialized to believe that every act is an opportunity to prove their masculinity, to exert their rights, to display their power. Men taught to believe that any woman would be lucky to receive their notice, and any woman ought to be grateful that she was singled out, even if she was singled out to be roofied and gang raped by the frat house.
But is it even fair to call it rape? Rape is such an ugly word. No one wants to be called a rapist. It’s so hurtful. She was asking for it by being there. She was “choking for it” because she smiled and tried to talk to me. She deserved it because she ignored me. She came to the party. She drank the beer. She got what was coming to her.
We all know what happens after, every single one of us, even the ones clutching their pearls and demanding to know why Kavanaugh’s accusers didn’t report him. We all know the reward for a woman dragging her bruised, damaged and violated body to the police. It gets her doubt and scorn. That’s a serious accusation young lady. Why were you at the party in the first place? It’s just a hard case to prove, you know. It’s your word against his. Come on sweetie. You know boys will be boys. You know sometimes they just get carried away. And if those charges are made against a man in power, a man with power, it gets you fired. It gets you hounded to the ends of the earth. It gets you threatened with more rape, and with death threats.
This script is so familiar. The groove in the record is so deep. When it comes to rape, we live in the upside-down. Statistics show that a man is more likely to be abducted by aliens than serve a minute in jail for raping a woman. Most rapes are unreported to the police. Of those that are reported, a small fraction lead to charges. Of those that lead to charges almost none result in convictions. That kidnapping alien would not be blamed for thinking that unpaid parking tickets are a worse crime than sexual assault.
We live in a world where a woman’s worst fear is to be raped and a man’s worst fear is to be unfairly accused of rape. One of those things actually happens with a disturbing frequency, and the other hardly ever happens at all. Yet the one that hardly ever happens defines every single conversation that we have about rape in our society. It is better that a thousand brutalized women receive no justice than one man suffer needlessly.
Wherever there is fear, there’s always a question: who does this fear serve? It doesn’t serve women, even those that align themselves with the annihilators, the women who believe the lie that if they’ve never been raped it’s because of their own fine character. That’s a response against fear, creating a calming fantasy in which you can control others actions by your good behavior.
I don’t believe this fear serves men, either. Not all men. Not the many men, most of men, who have never raped. Not the many men who managed to navigate the same set of confusing messages we all received about what defines a “real man” and a “good woman” without ever forcing themselves on a woman. Not the men whose opening approach to any woman they want to get to know is to first calm her fears that she’s going to be assaulted. Not the men who have to teach their daughters to be afraid of other men.
Who does this fear serve? Well, I hate to throw around words like “the patriarchy”, but yes, it serves the patriarchy. It serves those privileged men who believe they’re entitled to power. For whom rape is just another expression of dominance. When women report rapes, particularly if the perpetrator was a powerful man, they aren’t just met with disbelief. They’re not just ignored. They’re met with rage. They’re met with contempt. They’re met with extremely public annihilating force. To the victim, rape is a personal violation, an assault on their body and their soul. To the empowered, rape accusations are an assault on that power. They’re a challenge to their dominance, to their foundational beliefs in what is owed to them.
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a lot of those enraged, contemptuous faces on men who are supposed to be leading this country. We’ve heard every sputtering, apoplectic declaration that we should not “ruin a man’s life” over something that happened when he was young, when boys could be boys, and also when rape was illegal. Rape was illegal in the 80s, and the 70s and presumably some time before that. Boys may be boys, but assault is assault, and rape is rape.
I’ve seen the yearbook pictures of Kavanaugh, and read the inscriptions, and recognized it all. I’d been to those parties. I’d met those boys. Those boys that don’t know jack shit about the world except that they’re owed it. It’s theirs, and the rest of us are just here to be used and discarded.
As I’m writing this, I presume a decision is being made about Kavanaugh. I’ve been avoiding the news, because I don’t have the energy to be completely let down by the world, again. Perhaps you’ve noticed that many of the women in this country are tired, and enraged, and afraid. If the contemptuous men who lead us have their way, women will soon have the double dishonor of having to watch an accused rapist sworn in to fill the Supreme Court seat that will likely determine whether we are allowed to keep our bodily autonomy. A man who can’t possibly be responsible for his actions when he assaulted women and broke the law will be responsible for enforcing the law. It couldn’t be a clearer message. Real people will be injured by his decisions. Women will die. But none of that matters as long as those privileged, entitled men get what they’re owed.