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Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and the chilling power of sexual violence

Trump’s defense of his Supreme Court nominee reveals the fundamental role sexual violence plays in keeping women oppressed.

Donald Trump Holds MAGA Rally In Johnson City, Tennesee Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Donald Trump got up onstage at a Tuesday night rally and berated a survivor of sexual assault.

There is no other honest way to describe the president’s performance. He performed a mocking interpretation of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate, highlighting gaps in her memory and misrepresenting her testimony to try to discredit her story. In contrast to other Republicans, who had gone to great lengths to say they believed something had happened to Ford, the president dismissed her — casting the man she’s accused of assaulting her, Brett Kavanaugh, as the real victim, a target of a Democratic plot that Ford is presumably in on.

“A man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered,” Trump said. “They destroy people.”

His decision to go into full-on attack mode against Ford, which Senate Republicans had previously been so afraid to do that they refused to even ask her questions directly, shows exactly what we’re fighting over when we fight over Ford’s allegation: the role of sexual assault in American culture itself.

Feminist philosophers have long argued that sexual violence serves an insidious social purpose. The omnipresence of the threat — the intimate nature of it, the fact that any man could in theory be capable of such acts — serves as a form of intimidation. Behaviors as simple as going out alone at night or staying late at the office become laden with risk. The mere threat of rape, in the background, forces women into certain socially prescribed roles. It serves, in effect, to uphold male dominance.

“One of the most important aspects of rape as it occurs in our society is the way in which it is a moral injury to all women, not [only] to the woman who experiences it,” moral philosopher Jean Elizabeth Hampton wrote in an essay on sexual violence. “Rape confirms that women are ‘for’ men: to be used, dominated, treated as objects.”

This philosophical understanding of sexual violence, as a fundamentally social crime, has become more vital than ever in the days since the Kavanaugh and Ford testimonies. The hearings gripped the country; everywhere from nursing homes to the New York Stock Exchange, people stopped what they were doing to watch these two people speak.

The way Ford’s allegations are handled, then, will help define our national understanding of sexual assault for years to come. Do men enjoy superior standing, a presumption of truth-telling denied to female accusers? Just how seriously does our political system take accusations of sexual assault and violence? Are credible allegations disqualifying for the most significant legal body in the country?

Tuesday night, Trump presented one answer to this question: Women who come forward against powerful men can be mocked and disregarded. Their pain is not important in the face of a powerful man’s ambition. This is what will happen when they tell their stories.

If Trump gets away with this kind of rhetoric — if this is the argument that carries the day, that gets Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court — then the consequences for American society could be profound.

The Kavanaugh case could inaugurate a widespread cultural backlash to the #MeToo movement — of people, from the elected level down to the grassroots, making a show of public resistance to the emerging norm of believing sexual assault accusers.

Even if Trump’s rhetoric is discredited and denounced, the foulness of the process surrounding Ford’s accusation will not go away. The past few weeks, which re-traumatized a lot of assault survivors, will not be erased from memory. But the backlash will be shown to be weaker than it might seem — giving at least some heart to the women struggling to change America’s culture of sexual violence.

The oppressive power of sexual assault

The argument that sexual violence is a form of social intimidation has a long history in feminist writing. In 1971, the radical critic Susan Griffin described rape as “a form of mass terrorism”; in 1975, journalist Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking book Against Our Will argues that rape is “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

This work, revolutionary at the time, laid the foundations for the now-familiar claim that rape is about power rather than sex. Men who assault women aren’t seeking sexual gratification, at least not primarily; they are attempting to assert their own dominance over their victim.

In her 2006 book Analyzing Oppression, Boston University philosopher Ann Cudd takes an even broader social lens on these arguments. Cudd is interested in the way violence in general sustains oppressive social structures, like patriarchy and white supremacy. Violence, she argues, is one of several ways in which dominant groups to keep subordinate groups down. “Systematic violence,” meaning violence directed against members of a marginalized group by a dominant one, works to traumatize and terrify.

Rape and sexual assault might seem like individual crimes. But Cudd points out that it’s the effect, not the intent that matters. If the pervasiveness of sexual violence serves to intimidate women as a whole, then the effect of each individual attack is to reinforce women’s marginalized status.

The best way to understand sexual violence, in her view, is as a quiet but constant campaign of systemic violence to preserve male privilege.

“Violence against women is covert, neither recognized as a systematic war against women by the victims nor by those who would be sympathetic,” she writes. “[Yet] all women act under the shadow of a social threat situation which is, statistically, credible yet tacit. It changes our behavior; it makes acquiesce to limitations on our liberty that men do not have, it alters our sense of what is possible.”

This creates a kind of tyranny of expectations, where women feel the need to tailor their actions very specifically to minimize the threat of sexual violence. A 1983 essay by Marilyn Frye, a professor at Michigan State University, describes in vivid detail how this threat constrains a woman’s behavior down to the tiniest little details of behavior like what facial expressions she makes.

“Anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous,” she writes. “This means, at the least, that we may be found ‘difficult’ or unpleasant to work with, which is enough to cost one one’s livelihood; at worst, being seen as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous has been known to result in rape, arrest, beating, and murder.”

Sexual violence, these women argued, is not a purely intimate act between a victim and an assailant. It is a social phenomenon with much broader effects: It shapes how all women think and act. The greater the sense of fear, the more likely women are to avoid taking risks. By contrast, if powerful institutions can assuage women’s fear — if they believe they are safe, or that, at the very least, their assaulters will be punished — then the psychological effects of sexual violence can be minimized.

For this reason, Cudd points to the way the legal system handles assault as playing an important role in the systemic effects of sexual violence. Rape, as feminists often point out, is not handled like robbery. Robbery victims don’t immediately encounter reflexive doubt that they were robbed, but rape victims often face a presumption that a crime may not have actually happened. Many women are reluctant to report their assaults for that reason — one factor in why they often go unpunished.

This is part of why so much attention has been paid to things like the Bill Cosby trial and sentencing: They seem to suggest that the #MeToo movement is making some headway in changing the criminal justice system’s approach to sexual assault. But the Kavanaugh nomination, and the way it’s being treated by American political leaders, has the potential to turn this back on the victims.

The Kavanaugh hearings as a defining moment for sexual assault victims

The allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, like those against Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby, have ushered in another stage of America’s long-overdue reckoning with sexual violence.

My colleague Ezra Klein called Kavanaugh’s fiery response to Ford’s allegations, and the white male Republican senators lining up to praise him afterward, “the moment the #MeToo backlash truly took shape” — a sign that a certain segment of American society was fed up with what the movement had accomplished and wanted to reassert male innocence and privilege.

In a Senate Judiciary debate last Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham argued essentially just that. “I’m a single white male from South Carolina and I’m told I should just shut up, but I will not shut up,” Graham said.

Trump’s mocking of Ford on Tuesday night further showed that white men in power are not going anywhere — that they will not listen, will not budge, and will not give ground to #MeToo.

At the same time, though, the Kavanaugh debate has yet again galvanized victims of sexual violence and their supporters.

Protestors Demonstrate Against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh In New York
A protest against Kavanaugh’s nomination is New York City on October 1.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After President Trump blasted Ford for not doing so when the attack happened, thousands of women came forward to explain why that was so difficult under the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. Sen. Jeff Flake, the key swing vote on the Judiciary Committee, changed his mind on immediately confirming Kavanaugh last week based on women coming forward about their experiences. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), a swing vote in the broader Senate, says she’s receiving an unprecedented number of constituent calls about Kavanaugh — even more than she got during the health care debate, when she eventually opposed overturning Obamacare.

For a few months last fall, it seemed like the Weinstein story had ushered in a new era in which women were more willing to come forward about sexual harassment and assault, and the public would be more willing to believe them. The men they accused would, in some cases, face consequences — even if those consequences were professional and social rather than legal.

Even before Kavanaugh’s nomination, many of the men were taking steps toward a comeback (Louis C.K., for example). Now the controversy surrounding the Supreme Court nominee has brought the contest between the #MeToo movement and the backlash into relief. When should accusations be disqualifying? Under what conditions should accusers be believed? What kind of man can and should be held accountable for sexual assault?

That makes the nomination itself, and the way it’s handled, a defining moment for the way Americans see sexual assault writ large. Everyone is paying attention to this, and to the implicit messages that America’s political leaders are sending about sexual violence.

“This has resonance,” Tim Malloy, the assistant director of polling at Quinnipiac University, told my colleague Ella Nilsen. “This was dinner table conversation. People are going to talk about this today, people are going to talk about this tomorrow, it’s going to be in every political commercial.”

The up-or-down vote on Kavanaugh will matter the most in this perception. But so too will all of the things surrounding it: The seriousness of the FBI investigation. Whether or not Republicans condemn Trump’s attack on Ford. Whether stories like sexual assault survivors changing Flake’s mind become defining moments.

Nothing can reverse the damage that’s been done by comments like Trump’s, or the way Republicans lined up to defend Kavanaugh absolutely during the Ford hearing. The National Sexual Assault Hotline reported a 147 percent increase in calls over the average during the Ford and Kavanaugh hearings; since Ford first came forward, the average per-day increase has been around 46 percent.

The vicious debate is re-traumatizing victims, sending a message to women that they will still struggle and face harsh resistance to coming forward. If this is what happens to a woman like Ford, a white college professor with means, what’s the lesson for less privileged women?

But if Kavanaugh is defeated, or Trump’s mocking of Ford is prominently and roundly condemned, perhaps a little of this harm can be rolled back. Some women might even be encouraged to come forward, getting a sense that their words really do have power.

How powerful an effect this could be is very hard to say. The kind of subtle psychological oppression we’re talking about here is tough to quantify, and there haven’t been a lot of similar situations as high-profile as this one in the past.

But even a small impact is an important one. To understand why, I’d return to Frye, the Michigan State professor, who has a particularly poignant way of describing the way gender oppression works:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way.

It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

America’s leaders and activists have the opportunity to bend one of these bars. Even if they do so very slightly a little, the bird inside is that much closer to making an escape.