A Reflection on Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Sexual Assault

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and violence against women. 


My senior year of high school, I did a research project on the politics of sexual assault for my AP U.S. Government class. For forty minutes, I spoke to my classmates on the history of legislation on rape, how the rhetoric surrounding sexual assault has been exploited by certain groups in power to control others, and how survivors are treated by politicians. When I finished, I asked if there were any questions. There was only one; a boy sitting in the back of the class looked up from the video game he’d been playing throughout most of my presentation and spoke the words I knew I’d hear eventually: “What about when girls lie?”

This is a question that’s been asked with ever-increasing frequency in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing, and no matter how you answer, it doesn’t seem to be going away. It didn’t make a difference to this boy when I told him that only about 2% of rape claims are determined to be false¹, that most rapes that do occur are never even reported², that given the rarity of false claims, bringing them up in a serious conversation about the pervasiveness of rape culture in America is seriously insulting. This boy didn’t care about any of that, he was only concerned with the possibility of someday being accused of rape himself. But it’s not simply the ignorance of a 17-year-old boy that worries me, it’s the fact that this sentiment is now being expressed by millions of adult Americans, many of them occupying the highest offices in the government. And even though following Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, we’ve seen a rise in the discussion of sexual assault, the U.S. government’s dismissiveness towards survivors is nothing new.

How Politicians Treat Sexual Assault  

Historically, the idea of rape has been used to serve a political purpose; for generations, American politicians have exploited fears of sexual assault to color public opinion of certain groups. For instance, in 1922, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which would have made lynching—an issue that reached epidemic proportions in the Jim Crow era—a federal crime, was rejected by the Senate largely on the basis that lynching “served as a deterrent” against black men raping white women. This was completely untrue; the characterization of black men as a sexual threat to white women was and still is a racist and politically-charged falsehood that has been statistically disproven³. But despite these and other claims, politicians have made in the past, actual policy has rarely reflected their rhetorical condemnations.

For example, why is that Trump is only concerned about sexual assault when he’s accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists? (Unsurprisingly, Trump’s claims about Mexicans are also entirely baseless: 95% of sexual assaults in the U.S. are committed by native-born Americans). When he isn’t pushing his immigration policies, Trump’s rhetoric on sexual assault shifts dramatically. His Secretary of Education Besty Devos’ focus on the so-called “rights of the accused” involves the repeal of Obama-era campus sexual assault guidelines and a rhetorical shift away from believing victims.

And while it is tempting to focus on Trump’s role in all of this, it is equally important to recognize the legislators, male and female, who supported him by voting to confirm Kavanaugh. Furthermore, we must also pay attention to the ways in which the claims of these politicians are influencing the American public.

Kavanaugh’s Confirmation and What it Means

While, in the wake of Dr. Ford’s testimony, many have spoken out about the need to support survivors, others are taking the opposite approach. All too many people are using the hearing as an opportunity to redirect focus away from the plight of rape survivors and toward the men who are accused of sexual assault, treating them as the true victims. This rhetoric isn’t new. It appeared in 2016, when the father of Brock Turner, the former Stanford student convicted of rape, penned a widely-circulated letter begging for the forgiveness of his son’s actions, citing his academic talent, athletic ability, and “gentle and quiet nature.” The idea that we should pity the men whose “lives are ruined” by accusations of rape ignores the women whose lives are ruined by the trauma of sexual assault. While these calls to “think of the men” may seem bizarre to many of us, they are embraced by a disturbing number of people who truly believe the wholly inaccurate idea that false accusations of rape are common, or even prevalent.

When I watched the Senate hearing live two weeks ago, I felt a lot of things: horror at the image of a woman being questioned on the details of her trauma by a panel of mostly men, pride over her resilience in the face of this ordeal, and disgust from Brett Kavanaugh’s display of seemingly every emotion but regret. But since then, these intense feelings have faded. Not into ambivalence, but into an overwhelming sense of fatigue. I’m tired. Tired of seeing women and survivors so blatantly disrespected. Tired of being teased by Republican lawmakers who hint at voting against Trump, only to be let down when they inevitably make the same decisions they always do. Tired of explaining to boys why they shouldn’t be worrying about women lying about sexual assault. Tired of compromising.

What To Do Next

In many ways, I disagree with the way resistance to Trump has been romanticized. This is not a singular issue: it won’t be solved with marches or hashtags, and it won’t go away when the current administration leaves office. Trump represents the combination of systemic sexism and racism—among other things—that has always been present in America; to characterize Trump as the singular source of all these issues is to ignore the role they have always played in the oppression of women and minorities. Events like Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation are only the most visible effects of what we’re up against. That being said, I cannot understate the importance of believing in the possibility of overcoming these problems, even when it is hard to do so.

I’ll admit, I have found it difficult to remain optimistic. The dismissal of Dr. Ford’s testimony feels like another in an endless stream of blows we’ve been dealt since November 2016. Some days, it’s hard not to be cynical and maintain that a belief in true democracy is anything but naïve. But there is truly no other option than to try to put these feelings aside. We may be discouraged, but nothing will ever change unless we believe in and work for it. That’s why I’ll keep calling my senators, keep canvassing for candidates who could change things, keep having conversations. We’re tired, but we’re still awake. And we aren’t going anywhere.




Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3

Cited Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4