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The defenses to Brett Kavanaugh's alleged sexual misconduct expose double standards for whom we consider a predator

How we treat sexual misconduct allegations are dependent on longstanding power dynamics of race, sexuality and gender.
Image: Brett Kavanaugh
President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, during his confirmation hearing on Sept. 4, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

As multiple accusers have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, his defenders are taking predictable steps to defend him. They have tried trotting out conservative talking heads to smear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s initial accuser, as a “troubled” liar (though she first made the allegations to a therapist in 2012 and has since passed a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent) and a Democratic political operative. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has called newer allegations by Deborah Ramirez, simply "phony."

Equally predictable has been the defenses related to Kavanaugh’s youth and level of intoxication at the time of the alleged incidents. There seems to be the unfortunate belief among Kavanaugh's defenders that “boys will be boys” and should not be held responsible for their youthful "indiscretions" or crimes.

But most men and boys are not one drink too many away from perpetrating sexual abuse. Anyone who has ever drank alcohol in excess has probably done something they later regretted, but few commit sex crimes. Alcohol doesn’t cause sexual violence; if it did, it should be illegal. Rather, alcohol is often used by predators as a tool against victims and convenient excuse for their actions.

Our society too often treats women and girls as expendable, and enables boys and men who harm them — especially if they are elite and white. Sexual assaults are crimes of power, and how we treat them are also dependent on longstanding power dynamics of race, sexuality and gender.

Both of Kavanaugh’s alleged incidents, for instance, occurred in the early 1980s, when date rape wasn’t yet a concept. In fact, popular Hollywood films from the era like "16 Candles" and "Revenge of the Nerds" glorified high school and college date rape as comedic and charming products of boys’ raging hormones. In other words, the era wasn’t the best environment for young girls or women to come forward accusing boys of traumatic sexual misconduct. Society had a clear image of what a rapists looked like: young, poor and black or brown. They certainly didn’t look like Brett Kavanaugh, an upper-middle-class prep schooler headed for the Ivy League.

The impulse of conservatives to defend Brett Kavanaugh is similar to that which helped former Stanford student Brock Turner receive a light six-month jail sentence after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster; the news coverage inevitably highlighted his athletic achievements before his criminal acts. Turner, who used alcohol and parties as an excuse for his crimes, was granted his light sentence by Judge Aaron Persky (since recalled by voters), who said that Turner's youth was a factor in his decision. He worried deeply for Turner, believing that a harsh sentence would have “severe impact” on him and that a prison sentence was a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action." (Persky was seemingly less moved by the images of Turner’s victim, covered in “dried blood and bandages” as she lay on a hospital gurney.)

Conversely, Genarlow Wilson, a black high school athlete, was 17 when he had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old fellow student. What was apparently a case of youthful sexual experimentation led to Wilson being sentenced to 10 years in prison for felony aggravated child molestation, and serving two before having his sentence reclassified as a misdemeanor.

"Boys will be boys" is often an excuse for when young men physically harm women; it's the young man's equivalent of "locker room talk." But Kavanaugh is not being accused of streaking through a party or lighting a bag of dog poop on fire and leaving it on the crabby neighbor’s door step; he is accused of dragging a 15-year-old girl in a room and putting his hand over her mouth to quiet her screams as he tried to pull off her clothes and writhed on top of her, and of waving his penis in an intoxicated young woman’s face, two acts of attempted sexual misconduct.

Further, the problem with the understanding of what counts as sexual violence depends on the person and the circumstances is that it rarely gets applied to elite white males, who are seen as boys when others are seen as adults — especially when the latter are caught up in acts of violence. Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was gunned down during a scuffle with George Zimmerman (who was later acquitted of murder); no right wing pundits came to his defense. Instead they argued that, at 17, he was not a boy at all; they argued that Trayvon was old enough to enter the military.

The conservative right hasn’t spoken up for Laquan McDonald, who was armed with a small knife but not attacking anyone when Officer Jason Van Dyke riddled his frail adolescent body with 16 bullets in 2014. (Van Dyke is currently on trial for murder.)

They justified the killing of 13-year-old Tamir Rice by bringing up his size to take away focus from the fact that he was a child playing with a toy in a park when he was shot dead by police. (A grand jury failed to indict either officer and neither was held criminally liable.)

Brett Kavanaugh deserves due process and a full investigation into the claims against him, and he deserves an opportunity to answer these allegations and present a defense to claim his name. However, when people excuse sexual misconduct on the basis of intoxication and youth, it exposes the fact that our society values elite white males above all others.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., stated that he feared “ruining this guy’s life,” while paternalistically suggesting that Ford, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, was “being used” by political opposition. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro has suggested Ford might have been hypnotized; other Republican operatives have suggested Kavanaugh's is a case of mistaken identity. Kavanaugh is immediately being reframed as the victim and Ford, if not being portrayed as the perpetrator, is certainly being made to appear unable to think for herself.

But, at least as disturbingly, in the rush to defend Kavanaugh, the ongoing concern has been that these allegations should not be able to affect his life, and that all men should be scared for women to have the power to name and shame their abusers even decades after the fact. Less thought is given to the people who have to bear the shame and fear of victimization for years on end. Women and girls have long been scared of men's potential for abuse; perhaps it's past time for those who embodied that potential to be scared to attempt sexual or physical violence.