What Brett Kavanaugh teaches us about teenage boys and male power

Suzanne Moore
Brett Kavanaugh on Fox with his wife, declaring his innocence. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A bit nutty and a bit slutty.” This phrase, used by David Brock in his book The Real Anita Hill, is one I will always remember. Hill was a lawyer, who had acted as an adviser and assistant to the judge Clarence Thomas towards the start of her career; she then moved into academe, and when Thomas became a US supreme court nominee in the early 1990s, nominated by the first President Bush, Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

In October 1991, in publicly televised hearings, she said that Thomas had asked her out socially when she was working as his assistant. She added that he spoke graphically about his sexual prowess, talked about women having sex with animals and pornographic films that showed group sex or rape scenes; apparently, he also once asked “Who has put pubic hair on my coke?” after examining a can on his desk.

As the judiciary is a branch of the US government, nominees are, in many ways, forced to behave like political candidates, and it was understood that nominations could be “borked” – defeated by any means necessary – the word coming from the blocking of Robert Bork, another rightwinger, in 1987. When Thomas’s nomination was announced – and the Republicans desperately wanted a black conservative, which he was, in the post – Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, declared: “We’re going to bork him.”

This was more than 25 years ago. The culture war is not new; we go backwards and forwards, and now have another supreme court nominee and more allegations of a sexual nature. But something is shifting. I remember the Hill hearings being shot through with racial and sexual politics. Was this just another hi–tech lynching of a good black man? Hill was accused of being both too poised and also, devastatingly, of being a sexual being. It was his word against hers. I wrote at the time: “For whatever did or did not happen struck a chord with so many women in particular that they felt that what was being told was some emotional truth beyond the comprehension of men in suits.” Others, of course, wrote that only mad, witchy, rad fems believed her at all; the columnist Barbara Amiel said, with typical understament: “It seems fair to say that America today, vis-à-vis feminist thought, is at the point Germany reached before the Nazis took over.” Whoa!

I wonder what has happened over the years. I wonder, frankly, at my own reticence in not believing Hill; to have not clearly connected the sexual harassment she described to my own. Yes, she is speaking an emotional truth I had said, thinking somehow that that might not be the same as an actual truth.

Why? Because my own experience and that of my generation involved tolerating a certain level of harassment, quasi-assault and rape as the price we paid for working, travelling, wanting to have a life, to be independent. I always knew that seeking equality was risky. Stuff would happen to you, sexual stuff, slights and outright harassment, and it was a sign of strength that you didn’t complain. The humiliation was internalised. The shame was shoved down the back of your throat. There was little choice about swallowing or spitting. A lot of women swallowed our hurt, but then we found ourselves regurgitating it, often at inappropriate times. I never liked the word trauma: it seemed too dramatic to describe the things men did, or tried to do, to you. We were taught not to be dramatic.

When I read Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Donald Trump’s current supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it stuck in my throat. “With Kavanaugh’s hand over my mouth, I feared he may inadvertently kill me,” she has said. Her allegation is that, back in 1982, at a party, when she was 15 and he was 17, Kavanaugh locked her in a room with his friend Mark Judge. Kavanaugh was on top of her and was trying to get her clothes off. Judge allegedly egged him on, and also told him to stop at various points. Kavanaugh was very drunk. Blasey Ford is now a professor. Since the allegation, Deborah Ramirez, who went to Yale with Kavanaugh, has alleged in the New Yorker magazine that Kavanaugh thrust his penis against her face when they were both drinking at a college party in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh has denied all the allegations and Judge says he never saw Kavanaugh behave in that way.

But now another woman, Julie Swetnick, has said she attended “well over 10” house parties in the 80s where Kavanaugh and Judge were present. She said she saw Kavanaugh “engage in abusive and physically aggressive behaviour towards girls, including pressing girls against him without their consent, ‘grinding’ against girls and attempting to remove or shift girls clothing to expose private body parts”. In addition, she says she saw “efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys …” She herself, she went on to say, was gang raped at a party where Kavanaugh and Judge were present. They have yet to respond to these new allegations.

Anita Hill testifies, 1991. Photograph: Peter Heimsath/REX/Shutterstock

The US president, an unrepentant sexual predator, hasn’t been put off by the earlier allegations against his supreme court pick. Trump has not used the phrase “A bit nutty and a bit slutty“ about Blasey Ford because, apart from anything else, he does not read. But he has dismissed the women who have come forward as drunken, politically motivated Democrats.

Let’s be clear: Kavanaugh is not accused of rape and is not in court; he may simply not get the job he wants. He wants that job badly enough to have gone on Fox News this week, sitting alongside his concerned-looking wife, and telling us that he was in fact a virgin during his high school years – as if this means he has never disrespected women. His somewhat holier-than-thou persona is, of course, at odds with his yearbook entries; these involve him and many of his former classmates slut-shaming a woman called Renate (a large number of them referring to themselves as “Renate alumni”) and alluding to his legendary drinking.

It is possible that this man engaged in hardcore frat-boy antics, but never did anything bad to any women. Strangely though, all the things he is accused of are performances for other men, a botched show of sexual prowess and potency. The women concerned are vessels to be exchanged in this cementing of male friendship. This is common enough for it to be ordinary. Just a thing guys do. It will be a rare woman who doesn’t experience a shudder of recognition on reading these allegations, and an instant passport to incidents that occurred in their own teenage years.

The rhetorical question that keeps being voiced is: “What boy hasn’t done this in high school?” The idea of pinning a girl down against her will and making her feel she may die is apparently thoroughly normal. The answer to this is surely that a lot of boys haven’t, and never would, that it is not OK now and was not OK in the 70s or 80s, an era now spoken of as unwoke compared with the present, where we know what is and is not acceptable.

This is patently rubbish. We know that many teenage girls are wearing shorts under their skirts so as not to be groped at school; shots from hardcore porn films are now used as screensavers; and girls commonly fear being shamed on social media. We know about the incredibly small chance of a rapist being convicted in this country, and the character assassinations of female accusers. We know that some girls are deemed uncredible. In the UK, the police described certain girls in the Rotherham grooming cases as “unrapeable”; children who had blood running down their legs.

But it is in the US that we more usually see these high-profile rape trials play out, such as that of Brock Turner, who raped an unconscious woman. His father said afterwards that his sentence was: “A steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of 20 years of his life.” A brutal sexual assault was reduced to 20 minutes of action. What did that 20 minutes of action take from the woman who was raped? And what was the sentence that was deemed too harsh? A six-month sentence in county jail, of which he served three months.

Even if Kavanaugh did the things he is accused of, does it matter all these years later? Is it possible to be out of control as a young man – and perfectly respectful of women as an older one? It probably is, but it woud require a degree of honesty, a glimmer of self-reflection at least. Instead, Kavanaugh is now involved in some peculiar audition before the US public, in which he is presenting himself as the most perfect young man who ever lived.

That this pantomime is being performed while we watch another – a zombie-like Bill Cosby, cuffed and unrepentant, finally being taken to prison – is odd, to say the least. It took the testimony of more than 60 women and many years to bring Cosby down, and still we wonder if he is perhaps too old to be imprisoned. At what age is one beyond justice?

Kavanaugh’s alleged “crimes” are small fry compared with Cosby’s. Who will judge the judge at the judiciary hearing on Thursday? Other men, it turns out; 11 of them, but with “a female assistant” they have hired for the occasion. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Again, in this story as in so many others, women are wives and assistants. In this ideological battle, even the GOP are uneasy. It just may be that, as has been alleged, Kavanaugh insisted his clerks be pretty, that women look a certain way. Trump does the same. It is the way things always were. It is the way they are now emboldened to be again.

Stephen King nailed the boys-will-be-boys mantra. He tweeted that Kavanaugh may have drunk hard and partied heavily: “Those behaviours change with age,” he wrote, “but the attitudes and assumptions which drove those behaviours rarely do.” It seems to me perfectly possible that a man who is now a “carpool dad” did what he has been accused of. If sexual assault was only carried out by monsters, it would not be part of most women’s experience of growing up. This is what #MeToo has revealed. Here, then, we get the push back.

Interestingly, many conservative women are unhappy with Kavanaugh, too. They are unsure; they understand why women don’t always come forward with accusations of rape and assault. The unease comes when experience and belief systems clash. For any women this is difficult; it is easier to shut up and shut down about much of this. The #MeToo movement has opened up a conversation about pain; ordinary pain, what so many of us accept as just stuff that happens. We don’t want this for our daughters. That much we do know.

So, 27 years on from Anita Hill, we are not yet at the stage of believing women because it is still so uncomfortable even to listen to them. Men will decide if this man is fit to sit on the supreme court and make judgments over what women do with their bodies. If appointed, he will be on the supreme court for life.

This man says he behaved honourably, while some of his fellow students remember a belligerent drunk. I don’t know if he put his hand over a woman’s mouth while he was on top of her. I do know too well what that feels like though.

This is not only about Kavanaugh. It is about the silencing of women while decisions are made for us – and about us. It is about power; God forbid the nutty and the slutty – as all women are ultimately perceived – should speak the truth in these televised hearings. Women voters will watch this though. And they will watch, carefully, the men in charge who get to decide who to believe – and who to silence.