Memo to Kavanaugh supporters: Rape and sexual assault are not ‘rough horseplay’

October 16, 2018 — by Manasi Garg

On Sept. 27, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified that current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party 36 years ago. She was just 15 — Kavanaugh, 17. She said that Kavanaugh ambushed her on the way to the bathroom and, "stumbling drunk," he shoved her onto a bed. That he groped her and grinded her unwilling body against his own. That he removed her clothes and covered her mouth when she screamed. That his two friends stood nearby, laughing at Ford's terror and ignoring her cries for help.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford said in an interview with The Washington Post on Sept. 16.  She went on to describe her struggles with PTSD and anxiety after the alleged sexual assault: She said the trauma kept her silent for nearly four decades.

What Ford described was not a youthful indiscretion. What she described cannot be written off with a casual dismissal. What Ford described was attempted rape — and her testimony was highly credible to most observers.

Still, there are many who tried to paint the assault as a silly teenage mistake on Kavanaugh's part, as if sexual assault could ever be considered an understandable “mistake.” Carrie Severino, a lawyer for the right-wing organization Judicial Crisis Network, dismissed Kavanaugh’s purported behavior as “boorish” and merely “horseplay,” in a televised interview on CNN, as if attempted rape and horseplay were the same. Fox News columnist Stephen Miller snidely tweeted, “It was drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven," as if a consensual game could be confused with sexual assault.

This minimization of Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh not only exemplify society’s willingness to gloss over assault when committed, but has also allowed the ugly head of self-victimization among men in power to become visible.

“If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried,” a White House lawyer said in a statement on Sept. 16. “We can all be accused of something.”

This statement, and this kind of thinking, shifts sympathy away from the victim and onto the boy or man accused. It bemoans that all men are “at risk” ー any man could be Brett Kavanaugh, any man could have his life ruined by a woman.

It disregards the trauma of the woman or man who was sexually abused in favor of the accused's discomfort at being on trial. It normalizes the behavior Ford describes; it normalizes sexual assault. What teenage boy, after all, hasn’t become intoxicated and attempted to rape a teenage girl?

These are all variations of the same root idea: "Boys will be boys." It is a popular idea that has been used to defend the innocence not just of Kavanaugh, but of many men accused of sexual assault.

The phrase bolsters the notion that boys are all naturally aggressive and rough — that their behavior is something they cannot control. It implies that sexual assault is just a manifestation of male adolescent behavior — that if a boy hurts someone else, it isn't him being cruel. It is him just being a boy.

The phrase is dangerous because it is unequivocally false. Experts in adolescent behavior say that Kavanaugh's alleged behavior was not, and is not, normal.

Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University, told Vox that in interviews with adolescent boys, she's discovered many of them are violent or put on an act of aggression to fit in with cultural expectations of masculinity. It is not natural for boys to "rape, assault, push girls down, cover their mouths so they can’t breathe or try to take their clothes off," Way said. Assuming that sort of behavior is natural is not only dangerous to victims but unfair to boys.

The culture of silencing sexual violence in the United States and allowing culprits to get away relatively unscathed (think Harvey Weinstein, who, even with numerous allegations of sexual assault against him, remains wealthy and free) is so overwhelming because of this “boys will be boys” mentality. Until we stop dismissing rape as rough horseplay and sympathizing with the accused over the victim, we will never be able to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable for their crimes.

Even though Kavanaugh was confirmed to the court, it doesn’t mean Ford’s testimony was any less heroic; if anything, it was especially revealing of issues we need to address. Although her bravery galvanized sexual assault survivors to come forward, the many disparaging reactions to her account show that there is a lot more work to be done before perpetrators of sexual violence receive the punishment they deserve.