Like many people around the world, I was glued to C-SPAN last Thursday as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford endured a trial-like atmosphere to outline how she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh 35 years ago.
Also like many people watching, I was aghast at how the proceedings were run, and at Kavanaugh’s response. I had to turn it off – ostensibly to transcribe an interview, but really I just couldn’t bring myself to watch more of it.
The whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth and anger in my heart. Ford is just one victim – there are many of us out there with stories to tell.
I decided I had to write something about it, and I found a willing publisher in the LA Review of Books, who were good enough to get back to me at 5.30 pm on a Friday afternoon. I worked on the piece obsessively over the weekend, submitted it Monday and it was edited and ready to go yesterday morning.
I’ve printed here the original version of the piece. You can read the final published version here. The editor wanted to focus on the anger side of things, which I think made sense, and the published version has a stronger ending. But there were a few references to other published analyses that I wanted to include here.
Breaking Our Silence with Anger
In Christina Dalcher’s novel, Vox, women and girls are fitted with bracelets that limit the number of words they’re allowed to speak in a day to 100. Once they exceed that limit, the bracelet delivers an electric shock. The higher over the limit, the stronger the shock. One day the daughter of the main character comes home from school saying that she won a contest. Her mother looks at her bracelet and realizes it was a contest for who could speak the least. Her daughter had said five words all day.
Women’s voices have always been silenced, particularly when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. As Kate Manne writes, male dominance is in part about “seizing control of the narrative.”
In the US, a person is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and the chance of a woman being sexually assaulted in her lifetime is one in five. However, only 3% of rapists are ever prosecuted and imprisoned. The question posed by Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic is critical: “Would women’s stories be believed more often if hearing women’s stories at all wasn’t such a novel phenomenon?”
Society is not designed to hear women’s voices. As Mary Beard writes in Women & Power, when women speak out “it doesn’t much matter what line you take…if you venture into traditional male territory the abuse comes anyway…A significant subsection [of threats] is directed at silencing the woman.”
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford broke that silence and spoke out against Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanagh, about his assault of her 35 years ago. She had everything to lose, and nothing to gain. The price for breaking that silence was death threats, email hacking, and being impersonated online. She’s had to relocate her family to avoid unwanted public attention.
The spectacle of Ford testifying to a Republican-dominated committee about being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh was a microcosm of what women around the world deal with on a daily basis. The trauma of the assault can make a woman seem like an unreliable witness (see #WhyIDidntReport), even though middle-aged men who come forward with sexual assault allegations against priests when they were teenagers are immediately believed. Also, the burden of proof for a woman is onerous. For example, Blasey Ford took a polygraph test, about which she said “I endured it, it was fine.” But how much more does she have to endure for her public testimony to actually make a difference?
This is by no means an isolated incident. The public treatment of women by members of the Republican administration fits Kate Manne’s discussion of misogyny as “punitive, resentful, and personal, but not particular.” Former Trump staffer Jason Miller has been accused of secretly slipping an abortion pill into his girlfriend’s drink after he learned she was pregnant. She was hospitalized for two days. Failed Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was heavily supported by Trump, was accused of multiple instances of inappropriate sexual behavior with teenage girls — one as young as 14 — when he was in his 30s. And of course, there’s the famous “grab them by the pussy” line delivered by the President himself.
It’s important to note that this is happening in the context of the #MeToo movement, which was started by Tarana Burke in 2006 and gained momentum on Twitter in 2017 via Alyssa Milano. Men in media (e.g., Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Roger Ailes), politics (e.g., Elliott Broidy, Eric Schneiderman, Rob Porter, Pat Meehan), and even academic science (e.g., Dave Marchant, Christian Ott, Jason Lieb) have been outed in increasing numbers for their harassment and/or assault of women. There is a precedent for removing male predators from positions of power. But #MeToo seems to have lost all momentum once it hit the brick wall that is the Republican Party.
Women watching the Ford-Kavanaugh spectacle were in tears, as were their male allies. But those tears were also a sign of anger. By having Ford questioned by a prosecutor, but Kavanagh questioned by the committee, the double standard was there for all to see. As Ford said, “I’ve been trying to forget this all my life and now I’m supposed to remember every little detail.”
As a lawyer, Kavanaugh’s response should have been to follow fair procedure to get to the bottom of the issue. If he’s innocent, then he has nothing to hide. But by having a temper tantrum and failing to answer the committee’s questions (some argue that he used classic sexual abuser defense tactics), he’s basically admitted that Blasey Ford is right. The irony is that, had Ford responded as Kavanaugh did, with partisan political statements about a left-wing conspiracy, she would have been labelled hysterical, angry, and strident, and dismissed outright. As one woman wrote: “She is the epitome of a woman academic who has made her way through extreme competence and intelligence and not pissing the men around her off.”
Stéphanie Thomson underlines this behaviour in The Atlantic, writing, “women must learn how to master the art of appearing both sure of themselves and modest. Too much of the latter, and women’s achievements get overlooked. Too much of the former, and they can face…the “backlash effect”—social and professional sanctions for failing to conform to gender norms. For example, confident women are often perceived as less likable and hireable.”
In We Should All Be Feminists, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie notes that western women are highly invested in being liked, which necessarily requires that we not show anger or be aggressive or disagree too loudly. She writes, “We spend too much time telling girls they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons.” As Soraya Chemaly writes in Rage Becomes Her, anger is not considered a valid emotion for a woman – though sadness is, which is why we often cry “tears of rage.”
The problem is that Adichie fails to identify the reasoning behind being “likeable.” In many cases, it’s purpose is to protect us from men and the results of their anger. If you’re liked, maybe they won’t get angry with you or hurt you. Maybe you won’t get the cold shoulder or be attacked or threatened or have your tone or behaviour policed. As Jess Zimmerman writes at Dame, “This is the world we go armored against: the one where the response to “I’m afraid of your anger” is “well, don’t make me mad and we won’t have a problem.””
Kate Manne notes that misogyny “primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world” (emphasis hers). Commentary from both Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker and Lili Loofbourow in Slate seems to bear this out. Both have written that, in some cases, sexual assault appears to be something that men do to bond with other men, to gain admission into a male “club” from which they’ll glean a range of benefits that belonging confers. As Loofbourow writes, “the awful things Kavanaugh allegedly did…appear to more easily fit into a different category—a toxic homosociality—that involves males wooing other males over the comedy of being cruel to women.” That may explain why, as Blasey Ford testified, they were “having fun at my expense.”
Katie Herzog at The Stranger takes it even further, suggesting that admission to this male club is so all-consuming that the woman (or women) involved in the sexual act becomes a mere prop who is forgotten once she’s been used. Herzog writes that “when Kavanaugh says the attack never took place, that’s because, for him, it did not. What is traumatic for her is, for him, less than nothing.” This is not a cop-out that makes Kavanaugh’s actions acceptable, but rather an indictment of just how little men like him respect women.
The Ford-Kavanaugh spectacle is something that we should all be angry about. It exposes everything vile about the underbelly of US politics and the wholesale failure to see and treat women as equal human beings. Some argue that Ford was treated even worse than Anita Hill was 27 years ago, and that it shows women yet again that coming forward about sexual assault is in some cases as terrible an experience as the assault itself.
Women need to get angry and stay angry, and channel that anger into action. In 1981, Audre Lorde wrote, “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against…oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” Soraya Chemaly devotes an entire chapter of Rage Becomes Her to how to channel our anger. Even Time magazine notes that women’s anger is rising in everyday society, saying “Boldness, distilled from our anger and laced with a sense of humour, is the only solution. Forward march.”
As Mary Beard writes in Women & Power, “we have to be more reflective about what power is for, and how it is measured…if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?” In July of this year, a New York Times piece discussed how some of that power is being redefined by the large number of women running for political office and winning, “many of them suburban, middle-aged and not particularly radical, who are making political activism the center of their lives.”
The Women’s March, held the day after Trump’s inauguration on January 21, 2017, may have been the largest protest in American history. Approximately 5 million people in more than 600 cities marched to advocate for the rights of women, workers, and LGBTQ peoples, as well as racial justice, immigration reform, and more. As Soraya Chemaly writes, “Ten months later, the November 2017 elections were marked by historic victories for women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community.”
Our power lies in breaking the silence and using our voices to articulate our anger and purpose. We want the same freedoms that men have: to be free from the male gaze and male harassment, the ability to walk alone at night without fearing for our safety, the ability to make our own choices in relation to our own bodies, the same pay for the same work.
We want our stories to be heard – especially when we’re talking about sexual harassment.