Opinion Piece – What can we learn from the Kavanaugh confirmation?

What can we learn from the Kavanaugh confirmation?

As gender scholars, we are moved to analyze the Senate’s recent demonstration of how institutional patriarchy works to consolidate power through the humiliation of women. What are the lessons for all of us who are concerned about sexual violence, as we process the Kavanaugh hearings and their aftermath? What did the hearings demonstrate, what did they produce, and what are some responses that make sense in this context? These are some of the questions the faculty of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies believe we should be asking today; they are central questions of our discipline, as well as for the community beyond it.

The first lesson is that sexual assault is not an act completed in the moment and forgotten. Sexual violence may change the trajectory of a survivor’s entire life: while the immediate assault is a serious event, the long-term injuries can be equally devastating. Christine Blasey Ford reports that she was fundamentally altered by her assault experience, and that it took her years to regain equilibrium. This realization should lead us to redouble our commitment to doing all that we can, as a community, to reduce the likelihood that anyone on our campus becomes the target of a sexual assault.

The second lesson is that sexual assault is a sustained, deeply political issue demanding analysis and education. The activism of college students to raise awareness of the crisis of sexual assault on campuses and the efforts of the #MeToo movement (the most recent and highly visible contributions to a long historical struggle) have forced our society to consider how widespread the threat of sexual assault is, and how deep the harms. This has generated in some quarters a fear of the reckoning to come, when past assaults are revealed and when structures and cultures of domination through sexual violence will no longer be tolerated. Perpetrators are not the only people who react with fear; some families have been incited to ask whether their sons’ or husbands’ (or others’) “youthful indiscretions” should be dredged up to undermine their lifetime achievements. Some of this fear has been fanned for political gains, at the expense of honest evaluation. While restorative justice may not be appropriate in all cases, it is our responsibility to make clear that assault is always wrong, whatever age the person who undertakes it; that inebriation is no excuse for violence; but that actively participating in processes of admission and apology, practices of restitution, and the establishment of a no-tolerance culture, may make it easier to acknowledge and take responsibility for past offences. Our political focus should be on eliminating the cultures and structures that make sexual assault possible, not on protecting the status quo through focusing on the fragility of those who have assaulted. And we should not be distracted by political tactics such as those employed in the Kavanaugh process, where the presence of a few elite women was used strategically to conceal the need for further investigation of sexual harassment and to dismiss feminist political concerns with the nominee’s gender and race politics.

The third lesson is that, for some some men, particularly those born to privilege, the path to power is drawn through practices of male bonding that function through ritualized communal assaults on women. Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook and his membership in a notorious fraternity in college are both artifacts of a culture where men demonstrate their masculinity and power to one another by drinking and misogyny— a culture we are still living in. It is likely that more than a few of the members of the Judiciary Committee who were afraid to put their questions directly to Blasey Ford had similar experiences in their youth. These are toxic practices, enabled by structures designed to produce exclusions. While clearly not all sexual assault functions in this way, the fact that misogyny and sexual assault are used to consolidate political power makes it all the more important to call politicians to account.

Incidents of sexual violence nearly identical to those described in relation to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings continue to occur here in our community. In the last few days we received one more Nixle report of a sexual assault on a student in university housing over the weekend. The recently-published MyVoice survey report highlighted the higher risks of harm to students who are marginalized, particularly queer and transgender people of color and people with disabilities. As we consider the Kavanaugh hearings, we need to keep in mind how the issues that have been raised resonate through our classrooms and dormitories. While many students and some faculty and staff are working hard to improve the culture here, what has been done is clearly insufficient (and more exposure to online awareness training modules is a gesture rather than a commitment to fundamental change).

Sexual assault survivors should have more and better options. Medical treatment, psychological and trauma counseling, organized mutual support groups, and the support friends and family can provide once they know about the assault can help, but the benefits are limited. Assault survivors can also explore procedural, legal and criminal action against the perpetrators, but these processes are often re-traumatizing, and given that the legal system resides within a settler colonial context, we question what might be the limits of looking toward that same system for remedy. Accessing support and taking action is also complicated by many factors, including whether the perpetrator is part of the survivor’s social circle, and whether there is a culture of denial, victim-blaming, or even acceptance of assault with the easy phrase, “boys will be boys.” Alongside better options for survivors, it is at least equally important to expose and challenge the campus structures and cultures that support sexual violence and sexual harassment. As a campus community, we should work to make everyone aware that sexual assault is a crime, that survivors deserve support, and that we can and should design social practices, structures, places and processes that make assault unacceptable and harder to hide. And, when confronted by outrageous events such as the recent hearings and their aftermath, we should continue to speak out.

– Co-written by the Faculty of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies

The Department of Gender and Women’s Studies offers classes on the scholarship of structural misogyny and its repercussions in daily life, and there are knowledge and action resources available across the campus, including including GenEq, the Tang Center, and Path to Care, as well as many student-led groups.

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