September 25, 2018

Kavanaugh exposed: Sexual assault as masculine theater

And the answer to the oft-asked question, "If it was so bad, why didn't she report it?"

Calvin Klein ad glorifying group rape
He unzipped his pants, whipped out his penis and thrust it in her face. "Kiss it!" cried others in the dorm room, jeering and taunting. She pushed him away, inadvertently touching his dangling member. Word of the escapade spread rapidly through the university grapevine, humorous for some and unsettling for others. 

The mushrooming allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh share a common denominator: Each took place in full view of other men. These were not furtive attempts to gratify lust. They were (if true) proud demonstrations of male entitlement and power.

As I have written about previously, multiple-offender rape is a distinct type of sexual violence. It is a form of cultural theater, in which the victim serves as a dramatic prop through which men publicly demonstrate their heterosexual masculinity to each other.

In weighing reactions to the Kavanaugh allegations, it is instructive to contrast the two disparate scripts of so-called “gang rape” that I found in a study of media coverage of high-profile cases. When the actors are men of color, we see a Feral Beasts narrative that taps into a deep reservoir of racial fears to cast the offenders as amoral savages viciously ravishing innocent victims. In contrast, with high-status men such as Kavanaugh, a Good Guys script trivializes the event as merely a youthful and isolated indiscretion.

Group rape prelude, DC Comics
But group rape is no youthful mistake. It is functional behavior. It serves a purpose. Masculinity is a fragile identity that must be earned and then repeatedly proven. The public humiliation of females (and in some cases weaker or feminine men) is one dramatic method for publicly demonstrating hegemonic masculinity. Ritualistic conquest of the feminine “other” serves to visibly prove heterosexual masculinity and celebrate gendered power while simultaneously cementing male social bonds through mutual complicity in taboo acts. 

And what better object of display than the penis itself, the instrument of maleness brandished as a weapon to denigrate a drunken woman and establish her gendered powerlessness.

This misogynist performance art is not randomly distributed. As I discussed in my earliest analysis of this phenomenon – an in-depth exploration of an incident in which a group of high school athletes in Long Island, New York sexually assaulted younger male teammates – subcultures that germinate the seeds of group rape share a preoccupation with masculinity, or the extrusion of all things feminine.

Historically, masculinist social norms have thrived in all-male settings such as fraternities, military forces, street gangs, police departments, rock groups, and aggressive sports teams. So it is no coincidence that Judge Kavanaugh came of age in just such an all-male, misogynist milieu.

There were the lascivious Friday morning announcements, usually delivered by a senior:

Kavanaugh (far left) and teammates brag in yearbook about "Renate,"
an unwitting girl from a nearby Catholic girls' school

“After the [football] game, there will be a mixer. Girls from Holy Cross, Holy Child and Visitation ... will ... be ... available.” 

To facilitate this sexual availability, Georgetown boys were in the habit of getting girls “blind drunk” on a concoction of “jungle juice”; to them, girls were nothing but “meat,” one girl recalled. The sexual abuse of girls was so rampant that more than 1,000 alumnae of Holton-Arms, the girls’ school down the road, have signed a letter in support of former alumnae Christine Blasey (Ford), saying her account of Kavanaugh’s attempted rape is entirely consistent with the experiences they too had “heard and lived.”

Most recently, attorney Michael Avenatti (of Stormy Daniels fame) is claiming to possess “significant evidence” from a reputable source of multiple house parties in which Kavanaugh, his buddy Mark Judge, and others would ply vulnerable girls with alcohol in order to pull “trains,” or gang-rape them. Avenatti is not the most desirable source for a bombshell claim like this; he is "a relentless self-promoter" who is obviously thrusting himself into the center of the controversy for his own self-aggrandizement. However, Judge’s ex-girlfriend confirms that Judge told her he participated in at least one such train, lending some support for Avenatti's allegation.

UPDATE 9/26/18 0900:  Avenetti has just released a sworn declaration by his client, Julie Swetnick, claiming she was gang raped at a house party attended by Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge. She says she confided in at least two people at the time. (She subsequently told MSNBC that she reported the assault to police.) She also claimed she attended other house parties at which the two were among a group of males who may have drugged girls in order to take advantage of them. She says that Kavanaugh was a "mean drunk" who was verbally and physically abusive to girls, engaging in behaviors "designed to demean, humiliate and embarrass them."

An assortment of other people -- both male and female -- have come forward publicly to describe Kavanaugh as a heavy drinker in high school and college who became belligerent when intoxicated. A woman going by the pseudonym "Elizabeth" has described an incident in which an inebriated Kavanaugh became "obnoxious and crude" with her, to the merriment of his football buddies, causing her to flee a party and avoid him thereafter. Additionally, Kavanaugh got into at least one bar fight in which he allegedly threw his drink on a man; his friend was taken into police custody for hitting the man with a glass. 

The reporting penalty

Kavanaugh supporters – including the man who nominated him – have retorted by asking why neither Dr. Blasey nor Deborah Ramirez (the victim of the Yale University penis-dangling incident) reported these offenses when they happened. This is a common question. It comes up all the time at sexual assault trials in which I serve as an expert consultant.

But it is the wrong question.

The correct question is: Why in the world do any (albeit few) young women opt to report sexual assault, when the deck is stacked against them and reporting will most likely compound their suffering?

Overall, only about one out of every three or four sexual assaults is reported to police. The reporting rates are thought to be even lower – as low as 10 percent – for acquaintance rapes of teenage girls and young women. Coming forward is extraordinarily courageous. But from my vantage point in the trenches, I often find myself wondering whether it is perhaps foolhardy as well, stemming from a skewed calculus of the relative risks and benefits. Because at every step – from the police station to the courtroom and beyond – reporting has unintended negative effects on privacy, social and family relations, and even on one’s very sense of self.

As the victim who is brave (or foolhardy) enough to come forward quickly learns, being on the receiving end of gendered power means that you don't control the discourse.

The “lying bitches” unit

First, there is the police problem. Police departments are precisely the type of hypermasculine milieu in which misogynist attitudes have traditionally flourished, and walking into a police station can be like entering the lion’s den.

Multiple surveys reveal that police to this day remain highly suspicious of rape claimants, erroneously believing that large numbers – up to 80 percent – are lying. [After the Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 27, a police officer in Jonesboro, Arkansas took to social media to publicly proclaim Dr. Blasey a liar, citing the ludicrous 80 percent statistic.] As an extreme example of police hostility, a former detective in Philadelphia’s rape unit reportedly called it the “lying bitches unit.” Accordingly, he was in the habit of miscoding rape reports as noncriminal offenses, thereby preventing them from being counted, much less prosecuted. (Such data machinations have the added advantages of bolstering police crime-solving rates while artificially lowering a community’s overall crime rates.)

Police and prosecutorial recalcitrance remains a major barrier to successful prosecution. In one county in Pennsylvania, for instance, at least 85 people, include 44 teenagers, have reported rapes to police in the past three years, yet charges were filed in just two of those cases, resulting in only one conviction. In a new report, the U.S. Police Executive Research Forum warns that high rates of downgrading or “unfounding” of rape allegations is a red flag; journalists have exposed such systematic practices in several large U.S. cities, including St. Louis, New Orleans, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City.

Deer on wall of shed where Amber Wyatt was raped (police evidence photo)
I was involved in one such case recently, in which a rape allegation mysteriously vanished. The 16-year-old victim, "Jessica," had promptly reported a credible sexual assault by an older classmate. Despite collecting physical evidence – both from Jessica's body and from a used condom left at the scene – police did not even bother to question the perpetrator, dismissing the rape as a “he-said, she-said” situation. It wasn’t until the assailant went on to commit at least three further sexual assaults that he was finally brought to justice. Naturally, that happened in a different jurisdiction.

Reporter Elizabeth Bruenig spent three years investigating the appalling case of another 16-year-old girl, a cheerleader from her hometown who was viciously raped while intoxicated by two athletes at a high school party. Like 16-year-old Jessica, Amber Wyatt had also promptly reported the assault to police. Physical evidence, including vaginal and anal tearing and one of the boys' semen inside her, corroborated her account. Yet no one was ever prosecuted. Her hometown turned against her, and she became a pariah. 

Outside of the U.S., meanwhile, police in some locales put the onus on victims to prove that their histories are unblemished before a case may proceed. In London, police are demanding unfettered access to vast quantities of highly personal records such as health data, school records and social media accounts, data that are not routinely collected from suspects. 

This intense scrutiny hints at the greater peril a woman faces at the next, more adversarial stage. Even when police investigate diligently and prosecutors determine there is enough credible evidence to file charges, the courtroom remains inescapably dangerous for the rape victim, a site of potential revictimization and compounding of the initial trauma. 

The "real" rapist of the public imagination
In criminal trials, a claim of rape is measured against the popular stereotype of a “real rape.” Real rapists are strangers to their victims. They wield knives or guns. They use physical force, and inflict physical injury. In reality, the proportion of such rapes is small. An estimated 90 percent of assailants know their victims. Typically, there is no weapon (other than alcohol), and the victim does not suffer visible injuries. The rape may be an impulsive crime of opportunity. Or, a victim may be targeted because she is easy prey due to such vulnerabilities as intoxication, social or physical isolation, naivety, or a desire to fit in with the popular crowd.

Acquaintance rape is essentially a confidence trick. The rapist exploits the victim’s psyche to gain her trust. The victim is taken by surprise. Girls are trained from a young age to be polite and compliant. So when caught off guard, fighting back aggressively against someone they know (and trusted up until that very moment) does not come naturally. But any dearth of physical resistance will be deployed against them later, in court. 

In other words, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the victim in the prototypical acquaintance rape has just about always done things “wrong.” Maybe she drank too much. Maybe she flirted. Most likely, she made a poor choice – such as trusting the wrong guy or getting in the wrong car – that put her in a vulnerable position. Perhaps she did not physically resist to the degree that many men – with their different gender socialization – believe that a "real" victim would. Maybe her character is flawed, as evidenced by her sexual history or her mental health.

It is especially unreasonable to expect a 15- or 16-year-old girl to have the instincts (which are born out of experience) to anticipate that something bad is going to happen, and the skills necessary to extricate herself in time to avoid the assault. Perhaps it is no coincidence that girls in this age range are at especially heightened risk for victimization.

The requirement of a perfect victim is a very high bar. Invariably, case-specific factors can be found to cast aspersions on the victim's reputation or decision-making, thereby diminishing her credibility and recasting the incident so that the suspect is recast as victim. Unless there are multiple victims (and sometimes not even then), it is very difficult for the prosecution to prevail. Often, in the cases I observe, the accused is acquitted, perhaps using the defense of an honest (mis)belief that he had consent.

He walks out of the courtroom smiling, his invincibility shield intact. For her, the nightmares continue.


It is not just the rest of the world who judges the victim and finds her lacking. The victim is her own worst critic, nagged by a profound sense of shame and self-blame. Why did she trust him? Why did she get drunk? Why didn’t she fight harder? Why? Why? Why?

In a candid account of her own sexual assault victimization and failure to report, Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan writes about the intense self-loathing an attempted “date rape” unleashed in her:

“In my mind, it was not an example of male aggression used against a girl to extract sex from her. In my mind, it was an example of how undesirable I was. It was proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties, or the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.” 

Although under normal circumstances it is the powerful who get to shape the dominant narrative and dictate who is to be believed, the Kavanaugh debacle is encouraging silenced voices to speak up – and to be believed by many. Flanagan believes Dr. Blasey. And so do most other women, if we are being honest. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been assaulted or harassed or denigrated. We’ve been made to feel small. We’ve blamed ourselves for male transgressions. We’ve witnessed these same things happening to other girls and women.

This is why Dr. Blasey’s story resonates among women, and presents such a potent threat for Kavanaugh and his base of support.

False allegations

Among his defenders, in contrast, Kavanaugh’s unwavering denial of wrongdoing is posited as evidence of innocence. But denial is only natural for an accused. If it proved innocence, the prisons would be empty. Denial proves lack of acceptance of responsibility, and nothing more.

In truth, contrary to the beliefs of many police officers and others in the general public, it is quite rare for women to fabricate allegations of sexual assault. Research has consistently found that only a tiny fraction of rape reports – perhaps 5 or 6 percent – are false, and these generally follow predictable and detectable patterns.

Protesters at Kavanaugh's alma mater, Yale University
The allegations against Kavanaugh do not fit the profiles of false reports. Dr. Blasey and Ms. Ramirez did not engage in “regret sex” with Kavanaugh. They have no personal vendettas. They are not mentally unstable or criminal fraudsters. Both are respected, middle-aged, professional women who have come forward quite reluctantly, imperiling their valued privacy and the safety of their families. If they were lying, we would expect exaggerated claims made with greater certitude. We wouldn’t expect Dr. Blasey to take and pass a polygraph exam. Even the small details point to veracity: Mark Judge jumping onto the bed with Kavanaugh and Blasey; the manner in which Kavanaugh zipped his pants after exposing his penis to Ramirez; both women's admitted gaps in memory for some peripheral details. Real crimes are clumsy and messy and awkward, just like these.


We are witnessing a wave of ignominious "himpathy" for Kavanaugh. Defenders of this powerful man lament that no man is safe, if a youthful indiscretion or two can come roaring back decades later and “destroy a good man’s career.” 

But let’s tease that apart a bit. First and foremost, the implication that all young men are rapists is horrendously defamatory of the male gender.

And while forgiving youthful transgressions sounds merciful, why is himpathetic compassion not equal opportunity? Why aren't these same individuals lobbying to end sex offender registries that impose lifelong societal exile on teenage boys and young men, often for one-off mistakes? Why aren’t they advocating on behalf of the forgotten boys (and girls) from disadvantaged backgrounds who languish in prison for decades (as chronicled by attorney Bryan Stevenson in his poignant Just Mercy)?

Kavanaugh snubs Fred Guttenberg,
father of a 14-year-old Parkland school shooting victim
Unlike some of his detractors, I am not especially worried about Kavanaugh coaching girls’ basketball. He may inadvertently communicate sexist attitudes. But, as I’ve explained here, his sexual assaults were not the product of sexual deviance. They were the efforts of a privileged male to prove his masculine dominance to his peers.

So the issue isn’t Kavanaugh's risk for sexual reoffense. It’s whether he is ethically and morally fit to serve on our nation’s highest court.

Kavanaugh has repeatedly called for "fairness" in the confirmation process. But is he himself someone who will exercise his authority fairly and on behalf of all citizens, including women? Is he someone who demonstrates fairness and empathy for those with less privilege?

We don’t have to look back into ancient history for clues to the answer. Judge Kavanaugh was a member of a three-judge panel that twice flouted U.S. Supreme Court recognition of the rights of Guantanamo detainees to seek federal court review of their detentions, suggesting he is no friend to the disenfranchised. And as he hides behind good deeds like volunteering at a soup kitchen, he callously turns his back and refuses to shake the proffered hand of a Parkland slaughter victim's father.

So, the question of fairness becomes, fairness to whom? Only to him, or to society writ large? If Kavanaugh is hurriedly ushered onto our nation's highest court, what message will that transmit – especially to today's youth on the cusp of adulthood – about fairness, and about the true status of girls and women in 21st-century America?


Anonymous said...

It is quite obvious that the pictures you have used have nothing to do with Mr. Kavanaugh. Citing other cases is just meant to inflame the reader. There is no proof or disproof of the charges against Kavanaugh. It is conjecture from listening to the words of those who really had no evidence either. This is a very sad situation.

Anonymous said...

This reads of someone suffering from police officer jaded syndrome. Someone so immersed in the wrongs of society, they begin to take on a biased, nihilistic persecutory viewpoint of any suspect of wrongdoing - that society is just bad.

YouTube is replete with every growing examples of false accusations of all kinds because of society's increasing veneration, not sympathy for or understanding of, but veneration of the victim. Most currently with the Jussie Smollett case. There is agency in being a victim.

There is no proof professor Ford made the story up. And there is no proof Kavenaugh is guilty. Maybe in your "If claims of innocence were proof enough we'd have empty jails" you would have remembered "If accusations were proof enough everyone would be in prison", you might not have made that analogy.

You draw a very dangerous line of guilt by association, of gender and race that unfortunately is not uncommon today. Or maybe you just haven't asked enough black men in their 70's or 80's about false accusations by white women.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Anonymous #2:

Thank you for your comment.

False accusations may be increasing on YouTube, but there is no evidence that they are in the real world. They remain stable at around 5%, per research. They also tend to fall into a few distinct categories, none of which fit Justice Kavanaugh's accusers (as I explain in the post).

It's also essential to keep in mind the distinction between the criminal justice system and the Supreme Court appointment process. The standards and burdens of proof are entirely different between the two. No one was trying to prosecute Judge Kavanaugh or put him in prison. If so, the standard of proof would have been "beyond a reasonable doubt" and the burden of proof would have been on the prosecutor. In contrast to criminal guilt or innocence, in the judicial appointment process, the issue is moral fitness. At minimum, there is little doubt that Kavanaugh engaged in a pattern of boorish and sexist conduct in his youth, which brings into question his moral fitness to serve on the highest court in the land.