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Imagining MeToo after Kavanaugh

Cases and Controversies

Published: October 5, 2018

At the time I write this (Monday, Oct. 1) any prediction the outcome of the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh is likely to look foolish in the end. I put his odds of being confirmed stand at about 50/50, mostly dependent because that feels like the likelihood that investigators will uncover a sufficient quantum of evidence that substantively contradicts his sworn testimony.

That said, I am quite confident predicting that the Kavanaugh investigation and hearings will reverberate even longer and louder than those involving Justice Clarence Thomas a generation ago.

The Thomas nomination forced sexual harassment into the national conversation in a way it hadn’t been before. Even though a majority of Americans at the time said that they believed Justice Thomas, Anita Hill’s testimony galvanized a generation of women to mobilize around how women are treated in workplaces.

The competing testimony of Hill and Thomas in a way cleared the ground for a more sympathetic hearing for Judge Kavanaugh’s accusers. Moreover, the assault and harassment allegations against Judge Kavanaugh come on the heels of a series of high-profile accusations against powerful men that has clunkily been labeled the #MeToo movement.

The Thomas nomination catalyzed longstanding dissatisfaction with workplace treatment of women; the Kavanaugh will likely impel greater activism against endemic sexual assault. In many ways the alleged assault at the heart of the Kavanaugh controversy is more emblematic of #MeToo than most of the cases that are attributed to the movement.

Tarana Burke, an African-American activist is credited with creating “Me Too” as an organizing concept in 2006. Her goal was to elevate the profile of ordinary women, particularly women of color, who have survived sexual assault.

During the first wave of stories about sexual abuse by high-profile men in the entertainment industry, actress Alyssa Milano used the hashtag #MeToo to publicly acknowledge her history of assault.

Even in Milano’s adoption of the hashtag, the movement was not solely about calling out celebrity misdeeds. The whole point was that the likes of Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose are not anomalies.

The bulk of those declaring Me Too are ordinary women recounting assault, abuse or harassment at the hands of ordinary men. That message got lost in the splashy comeuppance of powerful men like Weinstein and the tawdry details of offenders like Louis C.K. Although the hashtag was not about celebrity, the presence of celebrity at the heart of the discussion made it easy to lose track of what women were telling us about the ubiquity of sexual abuse and threats that they live under.

The Kavanaugh nomination offers a chance to return the movement to its original purpose. The reason so many observers, especially women and experts in sexual assault, found Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony credible was how recognizable it was. Literally millions of women carry memories of a similar assault from their high school or college years.

Similarly, the reason so many are skeptical of Judge Kavanaugh’s near-histrionic, conspiracy-larded denial is that it so closely tracks with the experience of women who have confronted men with their misbehavior. The response is not mere denial, but a scorched-earth attempt to destroy the accuser’s credibility.

That tendency to pummel every victim who comes forward should remind us why so many sexual assaults go unreported.

It’s worth remembering that Senator Jeff Flake declared his continued support for Kavanaugh by asserting that her testimony simply was not enough. That remains an option for those who want more than a credible allegation, but that has never been enough for most accused assailants.

Similarly, partisans accept everything Kavanaugh says, up to and including his denials about underage drinking and sex that would normally be laughed off the national stage. I’m precisely the same age as Judge Kavanaugh. I can testify to what “ralphing” meant.

This is the response of people who are willing to concede no ground to the proposition that women should live without fear of assault. That response usually looks more like Kavanaugh’s or like Senator Lindsey Graham’s apoplectic rant about being ambushed by testimony that was exactly what had been promised.

The broader movement to which both the aftermath of the Thomas confirmation and #MeToo belong has succeeded in raising changing standards about what constitutes sexually abusive behavior. Behavior that was tolerated 30 years ago is not rightfully deemed unacceptable.

While the wave of celebrity scandals attributed to MeToo could be dismissed as a product of the rarified entertainment industry world, the relatively ordinary misconduct of which Kavanaugh stands accused represents the experience of far more of the one in four women who have experienced sexual assault.