The #MeToo movement exposed the myths around assault. What happens with Brett Kavanaugh will show if anything has really changed.
Almost a year ago, on October 5, 2017, the New York Times published an article accusing Harvey Weinstein of a pattern of sexual misconduct that almost single-handedly launched the most public phase of the #MeToo movement. What followed was a year of powerful men across industries being accused of using their power to sexually harass and assault those around them with impunity; a year of cultural discourse around the politics of gender and sex and consent; a year of demands for systemic change.
And now, as the one-year anniversary of the movement approaches, nearly every one of #MeToo’s major themes is converging in the sexual assault accusations facing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of clinical psychology at Palo Alto University, says that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party when they were both teenagers in the 1980s. According to Ford, Kavanaugh and a friend “corralled her” into a bedroom, where Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and groped her, covering her mouth when she tried to scream. “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford told the Washington Post. She was able to escape, she says, only after Kavanaugh and his friend toppled into a drunken heap.
Kavanaugh denied the accusation. “This is a completely false allegation,” he said in a statement. “I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone.”
On Sunday, a second woman came forward. In an interview with the New Yorker, Deborah Ramirez said that while she was at Yale with Kavanaugh in 1983, he exposed his genitalia to her at a dorm party, shoving his penis into her face.
Kavanaugh denied this claim as well, saying, “This alleged event from 35 years ago did not happen. The people who knew me then know that this did not happen, and have said so.”
Then, on Wednesday, attorney Michael Avenatti published a sworn affidavit signed by a third woman, Julie Swetnick. Swetnick says she attended parties during high school where Kavanaugh plotted with friends to drug and “gang rape” girls, and that Kavanaugh was present when she was gang-raped at a party. (She does not explicitly say whether Kavanaugh participated.)
“I don’t know who this is and this never happened,” Kavanaugh said in a statement on Swetnick’s allegations.
Ford is now set to testify before Congress, as is Kavanaugh. But in the lead-up to Ford’s testimony, the media, politicians, and ordinary Americans have managed to relitigate nearly all the major questions that the #MeToo movement has brought up over the past year.
The Kavanaugh confirmation process has brought to the surface the many fallacies that our culture repeats about rape and other sexual misconduct: that committing sexual violence is normal male behavior (boys will be boys, after all); that real victims come forward right away (and anyone who waits must be a liar); that depriving someone of a powerful position is the same as locking him in prison (or even killing him); that it takes the word of multiple women (at least more than one, and probably more than two) to equal the worth of a man’s word; that unless an act of sexual misconduct is as bad as those committed by Harvey Weinstein, it doesn’t count (and no one can tell the difference anymore); and that the country owes accused men a path to redemption (even if they haven’t acknowledged what they did wrong).
These are the stories that we repeat in our culture over and over again: quietly, among ourselves, when someone we know comes forward with an accusation of sexual misconduct, and more loudly, in the press, when stories of sexual misconduct make the news. They’re the stories that we repeated again and again over the course of the past year as the #MeToo movement rose and swelled, and they’re the stories we’re repeating now as Brett Kavanaugh fights for a Supreme Court seat.
Here are the myths our culture tells about sexual misconduct and how they have played out in Kavanaugh’s confirmation process — and how they damage us.
Myth 1: sexual assault is normal male behavior
After Ford went public with her allegation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, his supporters soon began deploying what Megan Garber at the Atlantic calls the “the boys-being-boys defense.”
This defense has two parts. First, it minimizes harassment and assault, likening these behaviors to harmless games or roughhousing. Fox News columnist Stephen Miller tweeted about the Kavanaugh allegations, “It was drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.” Meanwhile, Carrie Severino, a lawyer for the Judicial Crisis Network, a group backing Kavanaugh, suggested in a CNN interview that the actions Ford describes could perhaps be interpreted as “rough horseplay.”
Next, it claims that this type of behavior is so widespread as to be unremarkable. A lawyer close to the White House told Politico: “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.”
We’ve seen both pieces of the “boys-will-be-boys” defense over and over in the past year, whenever a high-profile man has become the subject of sexual misconduct allegations. Again and again, we’ve heard that what a woman or girl experienced as assault or harassment was actually just flirting or playing around. Again and again, we’ve heard the argument that sexually coercive or even violent behavior is normal and to be expected from boys and men.
Critics of the #MeToo have routinely redefined sexual misconduct as mere “seduction” gone wrong, worrying that a movement aimed at exposing the prevalence of harassment and assault will instead destroy “flirtation.” In a much-discussed op-ed in January in the New York Times, Daphne Merkin quoted an unnamed “feminist friend”: “What ever happened to flirting?”
“What one woman considers annoyance or even mild harassment, another might consider harmless flirtation, or even seduction,” wrote Heather Robinson in the New York Post in December. She asked, “will the fear of being branded a harasser cast a pall over opportunities for singles to find romance and fun this holiday season?”
Never mind the fact that survivors speaking up as part of #MeToo weren’t talking about holiday fun — they were sharing stories of abusive behavior, often by those in positions of power over them, that frequently left them traumatized.
Other critics of the movement argued that what looked like sexual misconduct to #MeToo advocates was simply the way of all men. Andrew Sullivan said it in New York magazine in January: Male sexuality “as men would naturally express it, if they could get away with it,” he wrote, is “full of handsiness and groping and objectification and lust and aggression and passion and the ruthless pursuit of yet another conquest.”
He allowed that, yes, “we can and should be restrained, tamed, kept under control” — but according to him, “groping” is just part of men’s nature. If the #MeToo movement fails to accept this, he wrote, “it is going to alienate a lot of people.”
As Rosalind Wiseman, author of Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, told Vox, the behavior Ford describes is not “horseplay”: “Horseplay means there is equality and consent between two people.” This is also true of “seven minutes in heaven,” or any of the many other sexually tinged games young people play — they can be fun if all parties are enthusiastic. If one person is forcing another person to participate, it’s not a game anymore — it’s abusive and harmful.
Moreover, as Wiseman notes, sexual assault by teenage boys may be common — many men have told her that it is, at least anecdotally — but that doesn’t make it right. To treat this behavior as in any way acceptable, as just “boys being boys,” normalizes something that can leave survivors with lasting trauma. It helps create an environment in which “all violence is basically accepted and begins to be tolerated,” Niobe Way, a psychology professor who studies boys, told Vox.
It’s unlikely that, as the lawyer put it to Politico, “every man” is guilty of something like what Ford describes. But the #MeToo movement has shown how prevalent sexual assault and sexual harassment are. In a survey conducted earlier this year by the group Stop Street Harassment, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men said they’d been harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives.
If we respond to this prevalence by throwing up our hands and deciding that sexual misconduct is simply something that men do (for one thing, sometimes the perpetrators aren’t men), nothing will ever change. Instead, anti-sexual assault advocates have long been working to spread the message that assault and harassment are never normal or acceptable, regardless of one’s age. In the last year, the #MeToo movement has helped to amplify their calls.
Myth 2: if it happened, she would have reported it immediately
One of the recurring critiques of Ford’s story is that she didn’t tell enough people when it happened.
“Ford never mentioned the purported assault to anyone at the time, or at any time over the following 20-plus years,” noted the Federalist, arguing that “the facts seemed to support” the idea that “Ford had been dispatched by the left to thwart Kavanaugh’s impending confirmation.”
“Ford never told anyone of any supposed incident until 2012, when she discussed the matter with a therapist during marital counseling,” reported Breitbart in its first Ford story, giving the point a place of honor in the second paragraph and ostentatiously referring to Ford’s account as a “supposed incident.”
It’s a critique with which President Donald Trump wholeheartedly agrees. In a series of tweets, Trump — reportedly pleased by the positive response he’s earned by not personally attacking Ford — argued that she is undoubtedly lying because she didn’t report Kavanaugh’s alleged actions when she was a teenager.
I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
The idea behind this argument is that if Kavanaugh had really attacked Ford at a house party back then, she should have told people right away. She should have reported it to the police or a teacher or her parents or another trusted adult; she should have put it on the record when it happened. Since she didn’t, the argument concludes, we can safely assume that the “supposed incident” never actually happened.
It’s an argument we saw before with Bill Cosby’s accusers and in the past year as part of the general backlash to the #MeToo movement: If it really happened, she would have said something at the time. She wouldn’t have waited.
As German Lopez has already outlined for Vox, that argument ignores the data that we have on survivors of sexual assault, which says that most of them choose not to report what happened to them. Mostly, that’s not because the survivors are making false claims or because what happened to them wasn’t a big deal. It’s because what happened is a very big deal, and our system is very poorly set up to handle it.
That means many survivors fear that if they come forward, they’ll only have to suffer repeated trauma at the hands of the legal system and have nothing to show for it afterward — and the data suggests that they’re not wrong to have this fear.
As Lopez wrote: “Part of this is the result of sexual assault victims fearing the repercussions of speaking out — the shaming, stigma, and retaliation, not to mention the difficulty of potentially reliving a traumatic event over and over in the course of an investigation.” Another factor is that “even when sexual assault survivors do come forward, police don’t appear to pursue their claims as vigorously as they would other crimes.”
In Ford’s prepared statement to Congress, she says that after she came forward with her accusation against Kavanaugh, “my greatest fears have been realized — and the reality has been far worse than what I expected.” She describes death threats and harassment that have forced her and her family out of their home, that “have been terrifying to receive and have rocked me to my core.”
We know this to be the case for survivors of sexual assault now, in 2018. In the early ’80s, the experience of coming forward with a sexual assault report was even worse — and the idea of coming forward with a story about an assault by an acquaintance at a party was nearly unthinkable.
The term “date rape” did not exist until the 1970s, and the earliest known usage is by feminist theorist Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book Against Our Will. The first major national date rape case came in 1990, and it was met with widespread confusion and dismissal. Reportedly, when the victim told her father that she’d been raped by a date that she took back to her dorm room, he responded, “It would not have happened if you had not let him in your room.”
Four decades ago, outside of feminist circles, rape was understood to mean “stranger rape.” It was a violent assault by a masked man in a dark alley. Getting assaulted by an acquaintance at a party would have been considered “horseplay.” For those who weren’t affected by it — those who weren’t actually getting assaulted by their acquaintances at parties — it wasn’t considered scary. It was primarily considered funny.
There are multiple ’80s teen comedies that built ostensibly lighthearted comedic sequences out of the sheer hilarity of the idea of girls getting assaulted at a party — most notably, as Helaine Olen pointed out on Twitter, Sixteen Candles.
Sixteen Candles was celebrated for decades for the dreaminess of its romantic hero, Jake Ryan. Jake Ryan was the perfect dream boy of the ’80s. (“Jake is Christ, redeeming the evil sins of high school,” wrote Hank Stuever, tongue in cheek, in the Washington Post in 2004. “Jake as the ideal. Jake as the eternal belief in something better.”)
Jake Ryan also makes a speech about how his girlfriend Caroline — perhaps the closest thing this movie has to a villain — is so drunk that “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” before passing her unconscious body over to another boy and saying, “Have fun.” When Caroline wakes up the next morning, she finds that while she was unconscious, the other boy had sex with her, which is to say that the boy raped her.
“I’m really sorry about getting you mixed up with that guy,” Jake tells Caroline the next day.
“Oh, it’s okay,” she says blithely. “He wasn’t too terrible.”
The Caroline subplot is a neat encapsulation of how mainstream culture thought about date rape in 1984. It is the girl’s fault. (Caroline is sexually aggressive and drunk, so therefore, she deserves what she gets.) It is acceptable because the boy is entitled to sex. (The boy who rapes Caroline is a nerd who is roundly ignored by other girls; his status is presented as a tragedy for the poor, unjustly overlooked nerd rather than the result of a sensible self-preservation strategy by the girls, and Caroline is presented as the recompense he is owed.) And after all, it is nothing worth complaining about.
If Caroline didn’t want to be raped, Sixteen Candles suggests, she wouldn’t have gone to a party and gotten drunk. If she didn’t want to be raped, she wouldn’t have been around a boy. If she didn’t want to be raped, she would have been a nice girl. Because she is not a nice girl, she has no grounds for complaint. And anyway, what happened to her definitely wasn’t rape.
For a teenage girl like Ford, the culture around her would have reminded her that if a boy assaulted her at a party, it was her own fault, it wasn’t a big deal, and it certainly wasn’t assault. And if, two years after her alleged attack, she felt any doubts or regrets about her silence, she just had to look at what dreamy and perfect Jake Ryan thought.
Myth 3: being denied a prestigious job is akin to being sent to prison — or even killed
As the #MeToo movement has gained steam over the past year, many — though by no means all — powerful people who have been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations have lost prestigious positions. Talk show host Charlie Rose and CBS chair Les Moonves were fired from the network. Democrat Al Franken resigned from the Senate under pressure from his party. Mario Batali stepped away from his restaurants.
Relatively few people accused as part of #MeToo have faced any sort of criminal prosecution in connection with the allegations. But critics of the movement routinely conflate the loss of an impressive job with imprisonment or even death. For instance, John Hockenberry, a former public radio host who was accused by multiple women of sexually harassing them or sending them inappropriate messages, recently wrote about his experience being “swept away” by the allegations in a Harper’s essay titled “Exile.”
Writing in Canada’s National Post, Christie Blatchford cast the #MeToo movement in even more dire language. “This is where we are now,” she wrote. “An execution, then no trial. Just an execution.”
Related to the idea that losing a job is akin to criminal conviction is the notion that those who’ve been accused as part of #MeToo are entitled to the same protections as criminal defendants, even if they are not facing criminal charges. Daphne Merkin, for instance, lamented in the New York Times in January that “due process is nowhere to be found” for men like Garrison Keillor, Jonathan Schwartz, Ryan Lizza, and Franken — all of whom had lost jobs as a result of #MeToo, but none of whom had faced any criminal proceedings.
Supporters of Kavanaugh and critics of the allegations against him have performed a similar kind of conflation. “This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters on Tuesday, before adding, “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.”
“Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination is in crisis,” writes Edward Morrissey at the Week. “So is our commitment to impartial justice and due process.”
But since he is not undergoing a criminal trial, Kavanaugh is not actually entitled to “due process” in a legal sense. The criminal court system in the US has a high bar for convictions, requiring prosecutors to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, because the consequences of a criminal conviction are so serious — the defendant can be deprived of liberty, or even of life.
For civil cases, the bar is lower; the potential penalties are less severe. And when what is at stake is the loss of a job — serious, certainly, but not the same as imprisonment, no matter what #MeToo critics say — then the high standards set up for criminal cases are not necessarily appropriate.
This is doubly true in the case of Kavanaugh, who stands not to lose a job he already holds but instead to lose the opportunity to serve on the country’s highest court. As Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, writes at the New Yorker, Kavanaugh “is petitioning the public for the privilege of holding one of the highest public offices in the country, and he should have to persuade us that he didn’t do what he is accused of doing.”
No one is entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court. It’s certainly reasonable to investigate Ford’s and Ramirez’s and Swetnick’s accounts; Ford herself has called for such an investigation. But that doesn’t mean that if they can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Kavanaugh assaulted them or others, the American people owe him a lifetime job deciding some of the country’s most difficult and consequential cases, including those that affect women’s right to make decisions about their bodies.
Many critics of #MeToo have lost sight of an important fact: Our legal protections in court exist to balance the rights of the accused with the rights of the victim and the interests of society. In other situations, we should also think about balancing those rights and interests. It’s important to consider the right of accused men to defend themselves, but it’s also important to consider the rights of survivors, and the right we all have to be led and governed by people who treat women — indeed, who treat all people — with respect.
Myth 4: it takes the word of multiple women to equal the word of one man
Before Ramirez came forward, one of the recurring defenses of Kavanaugh was that since Ford was the only person accusing him of assault, it probably didn’t happen.
“If there’s one thing we’ve seen time and again, it’s that one allegation often triggers a cascade of additional claims,” wrote David French in the National Review. “There seem to be precious few men who engage in serious sexual misconduct just once. If this was the kind of behavior that Kavanaugh engaged in, then look for more people to come forward.”
In a separate article in the National Review Online, Mona Charen wrote, “Maybe [Kavanaugh’s soccer dad persona] is all a charade, but we should be loath to draw that conclusion without at least one more woman stepping up to recount a similar experience. Absent that, his whole adult life tips the scales far more than one uncorroborated accusation.”
This argument draws from data that suggests that most sexual predators are repeat offenders. Generally, few predators stop at one groping: They tend to consistently cross boundaries with women, even escalating their behavior over time. On that level, it’s totally reasonable to argue that if Kavanaugh really is a predator, then statistically, he should have more than one victim.
However, we’ve already seen that there are all kinds of structural and social barriers in place that prevent women from telling anyone that they’ve been assaulted. So if a person has assaulted multiple women, there’s plenty of reason for those women not to come forward. And that means that making multiple accusers a prerequisite of taking any accusation against Kavanaugh seriously feels less like a genuine attempt due diligence than like a balancing act: How many women’s word does it take to equal the word of one man?
It took more than 80 women going on the record about Harvey Weinstein to get criminal charges brought against him. Now that Ramirez and Swetnick have stepped forward, there are three women on the record about Kavanaugh.
How many women would it take, not to bring criminal charges against Brett Kavanaugh, but just to disqualify him from one of the most prestigious seats of power in the country?
For some of Kavanaugh’s supporters, it apparently would take more than three. Shortly after Ramirez’s story went live, National Review editor Rich Lowry pointedly quoted from a section of Ramirez’s New Yorker article that he found less than convincing on Twitter. “After six days of carefully assessing her memories…” he wrote. One woman’s word might not equal the word of a man, but three apparently doesn’t either.
Myth 5: if it’s not as bad as what Harvey Weinstein is accused of, it doesn’t matter
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway reportedly defended Kavanaugh on Monday by saying the allegations against him were not as bad as those against Harvey Weinstein. On a conference call with White House surrogates, Conway said the sexual misconduct accusations against Weinstein, former CBS chair Les Moonves, and former Today anchor Matt Lauer were worse than the allegations faced by Kavanaugh, according to reporters from the Washington Post and Bloomberg.
Defending men accused of sexual misconduct by comparing them to Weinstein — who has been accused of sexual harassment, assault, or other misconduct by more than 80 women, and who has been indicted on rape charges — has become a common gambit in the age of #MeToo.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times in November, Cathy Young criticized what she called the “Weinsteining” of former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, whose new magazine project was shuttered after he was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. “Unlike Weinstein, film director James Toback or television journalist Mark Halperin, Wieseltier is not accused of sexual assault or coercion but of what Michelle Cottle, writing in the Atlantic, calls ‘low-level lechery,’” Young wrote. “Several journalists with whom I discussed Wieseltier’s downfall agreed that while his reported conduct was inappropriate and gross, the punishment seemed grossly excessive.”
Meanwhile, in December, Matt Damon contrasted the allegations against Sen. Al Franken with those against Weinstein.
“When you see Al Franken taking a picture putting his hands on that woman’s flak jacket and mugging for the camera … that is just like a terrible joke, and it’s not funny,” Damon said in an ABC interview. “But when you talk about Harvey and what he’s accused of, there are no pictures of that. He knew he was up to no good.”
“They don’t belong in the same category,” Damon said, adding, “There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
There are two main problems with the Weinstein comparisons. First, those who make them minimize serious allegations by arguing that they’re not as serious as the dozens of allegations Weinstein faces. Brett Kavanaugh is accused of sexually assaulting one woman, thrusting his genitals in another woman’s face without her consent, and plotting to drug girls at parties so that he and his friends could gang rape them. These allegations are no less disturbing because there are three (or, when Conway reportedly made her comments, two) women making them, rather than 80.
The second problem, evident in Damon’s and Young’s comments, is the assumption that women can’t tell the difference between the allegations against Weinstein and those against Franken or Wieseltier. Damon, Young, and others making similar arguments seem to worry that taking reports of sexual harassment or misconduct seriously is tantamount to punishing all offenses equally, subjecting anyone who commits any form of sexual misconduct to the same consequences as someone convicted of rape.
But no #MeToo advocate has seriously suggested such a thing. In fact, women in general and anti-harassment and assault advocates in particular are more than capable of thinking through the appropriate responses to different forms of misconduct in a nuanced way.
We don’t have to choose between doing nothing about an allegation or treating it exactly the same way we treat the Weinstein allegations; indeed, feminists and other gender justice advocates have been thinking through the appropriate responses to various forms of sexual misconduct for years.
It’s also worth noting that even Harvey Weinstein has not yet faced criminal penalties in connection with the allegations against him. Several of the men who lost jobs as a result of #MeToo are already considering — or have already made — comebacks. Far from exacting a blanket, severe punishment from every man accused of misconduct, #MeToo has in many cases resulted in very little punishment at all.
Myth 6: there has to be a path to redemption for men accused of sexual violence, and that path should appear as soon as the accused says it should
The Kavanaugh scandal hit at roughly the same time that some of the more high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct last fall (including Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer) began to put out feelers to return to the center of public life, raising the question: What do these accused men need to do to be granted forgiveness?
As a result, Kavanaugh has found himself looped into this redemption narrative as well: Shouldn’t he, supporters demand, be given the chance to redeem himself for his youthful indiscretions? The fact that Kavanaugh has denied all of the accusations against him, so that officially, there is nothing for him to redeem himself from, has not prevented this narrative from taking off.
“We were taught to extend forgiveness when people demonstrate through their actions that they have changed,” argued Dennis Prager at National Review. “As a well-known ancient Jewish adage put it: ‘Where the penitent stands, the most righteous cannot stand.’ In other words, the highest moral achievement is moral improvement.”
The argument is, roughly, that Kavanaugh didn’t assault anyone, but if he did, he should still be able to redeem himself enough to participate in public life again.
This is a tricky bit of preemptive doublethink. Many people are happy to wrestle with the question of how men accused of sexual misconduct can redeem themselves and earn the public’s goodwill again. But if you believe that Kavanaugh assaulted someone as a teenager, and you also believe that he should be able to redeem himself enough to occupy a seat on the Supreme Court, surely the first step toward redemption would be for him to say that he did it?
This argument relies on the belief that no matter what Kavanaugh might ever have done, and no matter how he responds to it, he is owed a powerful and prestigious position in public life if he wants it. We’ve seen the same belief undergirding the great redemption debate of the past few months, as the famous men who lost their jobs last year begin to clamber back into the spotlight.
“One next step, among many steps [for #MeToo] has to be figuring out a way for the men who are caught up in it to find redemption,” wrote Michael Ian Black on Twitter following Louis C.K.’s first major public performance after admitting to sexual misconduct. C.K. has admitted to having masturbated in front of women without their consent and has acknowledged that this was wrong, but as far as we know, he has not done anything to make restitution to his victims or to assure the public that he will not hurt women again in the future.
“Nobody has quite figured out what should happen in cases like [Jian Ghomeshi’s],” said now-former New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma after publishing an essay by Ghomeshi, “where you have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion, and how far that should go, how long that should last, and whether people should make a comeback or can make a comeback at all.”
Ghomeshi spent his entire essay explaining how, if you think about it, he is the real victim of his situation. He spared seemingly little concern for the 24 women he was accused of assaulting, with his alleged behavior going as far as nonconsensual beating and choking. (Ghomeshi was legally cleared of all charges after signing a peace bond and apologizing to one of his accusers.)
When this argument is applied again and again to men who have shown no interest in atoning for their actions, it begins to sound less like a call for restorative justice and more like a cheap and easy attempt to score a second chance for people who will not put in the work to earn one. The argument is less “everyone deserves a shot at a second chance” and more “the people I like deserve a shot at a second chance without working for it because they want it.”
The redemption fallacy is converging on the Kavanaugh case along with all of the rest of the rape fallacies that the #MeToo movement has painstakingly dragged out and reexamined because they are all very effective. They all disguise the fact that our culture does not actually think that sexual assault is a big deal or that sexual predators should be punished.
Our culture mostly thinks that sexual predators are entitled to do whatever they want with women’s bodies and to go wherever they please — including to the White House and the Supreme Court. And even if they momentarily have to face consequences for their actions, our culture mostly thinks that sexual predators should get to return to positions of power, where they will continue to make decisions for the rest of us.
#MeToo has exposed these fallacies. Can it eliminate them?
The #MeToo movement has already succeeded in bringing to light the many problems with the way we talk about sexual harassment and assault in America. Since women came forward to report their experiences with Harvey Weinstein, we’ve seen an unprecedented public conversation around how high-profile people (most — but not all — of them men) abuse their power, and how difficult it can be for survivors to tell their stories.
One recent example: In response to President Trump’s tweet claiming that Ford would have reported right away if her charges were real, survivors began sharing their own experiences under the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. Alyssa Milano, who helped kick off the current #MeToo movement with her tweet in October, wrote that she had not reported her assaults, and she encouraged others to add their experiences.
Hey, @realDonaldTrump, Listen the fuck up.
I was sexually assaulted twice. Once when I was a teenager. I never filed a police report and it took me 30 years to tell me parents.
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) September 21, 2018
The public conversation has been groundbreaking in its own right, making some survivors feel comfortable coming forward after years or decades of silence. But we have yet to see whether the movement can eliminate the myths and fallacies about rape and harassment it has brought to light.
What happens next in Kavanaugh’s confirmation process will be a test of that question. Nearly 30 years ago, under very similar circumstances, Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, had subjected her to repeated sexual harassment. We saw her shamed in the press and on the floor of the Senate. We saw Senate Democrats fail to investigate her claims as aggressively as they could have. (Joe Biden is still apologizing for his role in the proceedings.) We saw the nominee get the last word, in a statement televised for the American people in primetime on a Friday. We saw him join the Supreme Court.
Since then, we’ve seen the rise of #MeToo. Whether things turn out to be different this time around — whether Ford gets a fair hearing, and whether Congress and the American people give her words the same weight they’d give a man’s — will say a lot about how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.