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The “male bonding” of Brett Kavanaugh’s youth had a human cost

Kavanaugh and his high school friends bonded over a woman’s humiliation. That’s all too common.

President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice Pick Brett Kavanaugh’s Nomination In Jeopardy Over Past Accusations
Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct by yet another woman.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Among the things Christine Blasey Ford remembers most clearly is the laughter.

In her testimony at a Senate hearing on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Thursday, Ford repeatedly refers to hearing Kavanaugh — whom she has accused of assaulting her at a high school party in the early 1980’s — laugh with his friend, Mark Judge, during and after the attack. “They both seemed to be having a good time.”

It is that notion of “having a good time” — of boys whose idea of “fun” involves humiliating or degrading women — that has characterized so many of the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh.

Just consider another, non-physical act of humiliation in which Kavanaugh appears to have participated: his participation in what his high school yearbook terms the “Renate Alumni”

The name “Renate” — an apparent reference to a Renate Schroeder who attended a neighboring girls’ school — appears at least 14 times throughout the 1983 yearbook of Georgetown Preparatory School, according to reporting by the New York Times. In each case, it is next to photographs of boys. The implication, according to classmates, is that these boys had romantic or sexual relations with Schroeder.

Renate Schroeder — who now goes by her married name, Renate Dolphin — denies ever having any sexual or romantic connection with Kavanaugh. (Kavanaugh, through a representative, has said the two shared a “brief kiss,” which Dolphin also denies.)

The story of the “Renate Alumni” is the story of a group of men whose treatment of women may have been not just cruel but criminal. Some of those same men, including Kavanaugh, were accused on Wednesday of facilitating “gang rape” of girls at high school parties by another acquaintance of theirs, Julie Swetnick, who went to a different high school. (Kavanaugh has flatly denied the allegations, calling them “ridiculous.”)

But the case of Renate Schroeder Dolphin is nevertheless an illustrative one, precisely because she says little or no physical contact with the boys occurred. Rather, her name seems to have become a punchline: an inside joke for a group of men whose bonds with one another were fostered by her ritual humiliation. Whether Dolphin was involved with any of these boys or not was immaterial. The self-proclaimed “Renate Alumni” quite literally constructed their identity around her.

Dolphin says she was not assaulted. But her story bears a strong resemblance to that of Kavanaugh’s second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, who alleges that an excessively inebriated Kavanaugh thrust his naked penis in her face during a college drinking game at a dorm room gathering (Kavanaugh also denies this event took place).

As Ramirez and her former classmates alike told the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Meyer, Ramirez said she was frequently targeted for bullying and humiliation by her male Yale classmates. Her story, too, bears a strong resemblance to that of Swetnick, who describes a culture of alcohol-fueled high school parties in which Kavanaugh and his friends would ritualistically get girls drunk so that they could be sexually assaulted.

In Dolphin’s, Ramirez’s, Ford’s and Swetnick’s accounts, it does not appear that the abuse each woman says she experienced was directed primarily by a desire for sexual gratification. Indeed, per Ramirez’s account, it hardly seems like Kavanaugh thought about her at all. Instead, these women say they were ritually humiliated and degraded in order to promote fraternal bonds between young men.

If these women’s allegations are true, Kavanaugh of course bears full responsibility for them. But the revelations of his alleged high school and collegiate acts of ritualized degradation of women speak to a much wider and more insidious societal issue: the way homosocial male bonding is so often predicated on a woman’s humiliation.

From the “Renate Alumni” to the notorious all-male Yale secret society Truth and Courage (known on campus as “Tit and Clit”), of which Kavanaugh was reportedly a member, what is most remarkable about his adolescence and early adulthood is how unremarkable it is. The objectification and shaming of a woman is an essential part of the way men bond with one another — and create their identities — in our society.

The concept of “homosociality” is central to the ways men use women to bond with each other

One of the most striking accounts of the way women are used as subjects of humiliation to shore up male relationships comes from the late queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. In her influential 1985 book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, considered one of the foundational texts in queer theory, Sedgwick posits that the cultural history of English literature has always been one of what she calls “triangulation.”

Her argument is nuanced and complex, but at its core is the way in which men use women to define themselves against other men. Unable to reconcile societally unacceptable feelings of what Sedgwick calls “homosociality” — strong but not necessarily sexual affinities men have for other men — with a culture that is overly preoccupied in shaming potential homosexuality, men end up using women as a kind of proxy for their feelings about one another. Sedgwick argues that men, desperate to prove their heterosexuality but trapped in a culture that does not allow them to engage emotionally or authentically with one another, use women as “conduits”: safe outlets for them to express their desire for one another.

This doesn’t necessarily mean sexual humiliation. A man’s straightforward romantic pursuit of a woman could, in Sedgwick’s model, double as a kind of “performance” for his male peers, allowing him to attain status as a man. But the fundamental objectification of the woman involved — she does not exist for herself, but for the men around her — remains the same. Sexualization and humiliation become the natural endpoints of a trend of dehumanization.

In this context, the sexualization and humiliation of women becomes about more than just experiencing power over those women. Instead, it becomes the means by which men construct their own identities vis-à-vis one another. In the case of Renate Schroeder Dolphin, that construction became literal. Her name, her identity, and her (perceived) sexuality became the thing that linked the football players of Georgetown Prep together.

Sexualized humiliation of women is a foundational part of homosocial bonding

Social science bears out the way female humiliation is at the heart of homosocial bonding. In 2008, sociologist Michael Flood, a researcher at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at La Trobe University, did a qualitative study of the sexual identity of boys ages 18 to 26 in Canberra. He found that “sexual activity is a key path to masculine status, and other men are the audience, always imagined and sometimes real, for one’s sexual activities.”

Several of the young men Flood interviewed in depth for the study had engaged in what Flood calls “ritualized sexual humiliation.” Two separate research subjects, members of the same football league, detailed having participated in a party game called “Rodeo,” in which a group of male friends selected one of their number, at random, to get the most overweight woman he could find as drunk as possible before bringing her back to a hotel room. Once there, the selected man tied her with pantyhose to the bed, then summoned his companions before shouting “Rodeo” and jumping on her back, trying to stay on top of her for as long as possible as she struggled. Another boy described having gotten a woman drunk and allowing his companions to assault her with golf balls.

Flood characterizes these disturbing accounts as primarily — in the minds of these rituals’ participants — about the homosocial experience: They’re a night out with the boys, an example of masculine teamwork. He concludes that “sex with women is a direct medium of male bonding, and men’s narratives of their sexual and gender relations are offered to male audiences in storytelling cultures generated in part by homosociality.”

In a follow-up statement he shared with Vox, Flood said:

For men in male-dominated contexts like the military, male-male relations have a very powerful influence on their sexual and social relations with women. For some men, male-male relations take priority over male-female non-sexual relations ... and platonic friendships with women are dangerously feminising and rare if not impossible. This creates the bizarre situation where males who have female friends risk being seen as ‘gay.’ Sex with women ... is a key path to status among male peers. And telling stories and boasting about sexual exploits is part of male-male peer cultures.”

Sometimes, Flood said, that homosocial dynamic lends itself to sexual assault, humiliation, and rape in the name of male bonding. “Male bonding is part and parcel of some men’s violence against women. For example, the cultures and collective rituals of male bonding among closely knit male fraternities and male athletes on college campuses foster tolerance toward or even perpetration of sexual assault against women. Rape is more likely in fraternities that practice greater gender segregation. ... Rape may be both a means to and an expression of male bonding, especially when it’s perpetrated by groups of males.”

Flood’s findings are far from isolated. From the ill-fated prom night of Stephen King’s Carrie to the modern-day trend of “pigging” (leading an “ugly” woman to believe she is desirable), female sexual humiliation is an entrenched part of our cultural understanding of how young men bond.

Elite institutions are set up to encourage this kind of homosocial behavior

Stories like Dolphin’s and Ramirez’s, in particular, could happen anywhere. But it’s worth examining how the culture of elite institutions like Georgetown Prep and Yale intensifies both the homosocial behavior and female ritual humiliation.

Writing about British all-male prep schools — the ancestors of both Georgetown Prep and Yale — the author and journalist Robert Verkaik argues that the very nature of those institutions is designed to promote intense homosocial bonding. Through rigid hierarchies and cultures of “hazing” and “bullying,” elite institutions (particularly all-male ones) serve to instill “unshakeable confidence” in their students, even as they foster an equally unshakable sense of tribal loyalty.

The upper classes preserve their power, Verkaik says, precisely because their formative institutions instill in them the very qualities necessary to “protect one’s own.” While Verkaik’s accounts of sexual humiliation center on male-on-male hazing, his understanding of the way ritualized, eroticized degradation is vital to “male bonding,” and to the formation, in turn, of a class of self-protective, privileged male elite, could just as easily apply to the so-called “Renate Alumni.”

Certainly, elite secret societies like “Tit and Clit,” as well as Kavanaugh’s fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, are likewise legendary for having fostered similarly loyal bonds among members — bonds that critics, likewise, say were built on sexually aggressive and humiliating behavior. Former Yale students report a culture of DKE students being “loud, entitled, pushy, and creepy,” and breaking into women’s rooms to steal underwear to display as part of a fraternity “flag.” And the violations don’t stop there. At least 10 Yale women have accused DKE members of sexual misconduct between 2014 and 2017.

The administration of Georgetown Prep has actively spoken out against these kinds of toxic dynamics. In an open letter shared with members of the community, Georgetown Prep’s principal, Jesuit Father James Van Dyke, challenged students and alumni to “think deeply and long about what it means to be ‘men for others,’ what the vaunted Prep ‘brotherhood’ is really about.”

The head of another Jesuit boys’ school, Fordham Prep’s Christopher J. Devron, S.J., also highlighted the importance of challenging the homosocial assumptions of masculinity embedded in institutions like these. In an article for the Jesuit America Magazine, Devron argued for the importance of fostering empathy and emotional openness among the boys in his school. “I believe God’s Spirit helps our students see and know the dignity that resides within each person,” he wrote. “What a powerful way to inoculate young men against the poison of toxic masculinity.”

We may never know what happened between Kavanaugh and Ramirez, Kavanaugh and Swetnick, or Kavanaugh and his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges that Kavanaugh pinned her down and tried to force himself on her at a high school party. We do, however, know that Kavanaugh and his classmates were part of a culture in which male identity and ritualized exertions of sexual power went hand in hand.

An ex-girlfriend of Mark Judge — a friend of Kavanaugh’s, who Ford says was in the room at the time of the alleged assault — said that Judge told her he’d participated in “trains” in which he and his friends took turns having sex with a drunk woman. Even more troublingly, she said he did not seem to think such an action violated the woman’s consent. (Judge denies both having engaged in such actions and telling his ex-girlfriend about them. On Fox News earlier this week, Kavanaugh said he remained a virgin for years after college.)

Many of Kavanaugh’s defenders, from Rod Dreher to Bari Weiss, have trotted out the hoary “boys will be boys” defense. But what might be most striking about the story of Renate Schroeder Dolphin is that it reveals the dark societal heart of what that means. All too often, being “boys” — that is, forging a masculine identity — means the sexual humiliation and degradation of women, for the benefit of an audience of other men. It’s time for a better definition.