Selcer: America’s re-re-re-reckoning with rape culture

On Sept. 22, I woke up and found a familiar sight on my Facebook feed. As I fought back the surreal feeling of déjà vu, I read through countless #whyididntreport stories, mostly from fellow women. For the second or third time this year, I joined the latest hashtag and went …

On Sept. 22, I woke up and found a familiar sight on my Facebook feed. As I fought back the surreal feeling of déjà vu, I read through countless #whyididntreport stories, mostly from fellow women. For the second or third time this year, I joined the latest hashtag and went on to describe the countless times I had been exposed to predatory and violent sexual behaviors since I was a preteen. I admitted that I didn’t report a single one of those experiences to the police.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

After two weeks of intense controversy over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh drunkenly sexually assaulted her at a party in 1982, the Senate Judiciary Committee finally heard direct testimony from Ford and Kavanaugh last Thursday. Throughout that hearing, Dr. Ford was able to recount with profound clarity not only her traumatic memories, but also the cognitive science behind the few lapses in her recollections. Many accounts called her testimony “riveting” and “heart-wrenching.”

Despite this, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans voted on Thursday to move forward with the confirmation process only delaying a full Senate vote at the last minute over the concerns of Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona . The senator called for the White House to reopen a limited FBI investigation (an investigation Ford has requested multiple times) into Dr. Ford’s claims. But the one-week cap on the investigation seems to suggest that, regardless of what the FBI discovers, Republicans in the Senate intend to move forward to confirm Kavanaugh so long as they can argue that there is no definitive proof of the assault.

Every time I hear someone suggest that there is no proof that Kavanaugh assaulted Ford, I hear them also saying that there is no proof that I was ever assaulted. If her word as a research psychologist with multiple degrees from Stanford isn’t proof enough, then neither is mine. Neither is any woman’s.

Every year, we have another “reckoning” with American rape culture. We have gone through seemingly endless reiterations: #metoo, #timesup, #whyididntreport, #believewomen and more. Every year, people talk about those hashtags as if they have fixed our rape culture merely by creating awareness of it.

Awareness is not enough. The politics of Kavanaugh’s hearings are unequivocal evidence that we haven’t even begun to fix the problem. Regardless of whether or not Kavanaugh is confirmed, American rape culture will persist as long as we continue to defer to the rhetoric of rape culture. That’s because our language the questions we ask and the way we ask them, the information we consider to be true, the way we assign credibility is steeped in the history and practice of violence against women.

Think, for example, about the ongoing debates about what counts as sexual assault or harassment, and how long it counts for. Everyone, especially men, seems to want clear guidelines. The way that these conversations take place indicates a general unwillingness to treat women generously, and thus the underlying question seems to be: “How far across the line can someone get without consequences?” instead of “What is an appropriate, comfortable distance from the line?”

Another example of rape culture rhetoric: Does it still count that Kavanaugh assaulted Dr. Ford if it was more than 30 years ago? Does sexual assault or rape only count if you report it?

Trump certainly seems to think as much: “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.”

On the face, it might seem reasonable to ask for a report to substantiate a claim of sexual assault. However, the structural constraints on reporting make it nearly impossible for most victims to even file let alone to actually go to court. In a vicious cycle, survivors are told they need proof to file a report of an assault, while also being told that a report is the only acceptable form of proof.

Even those who are tested with rape kits might find themselves without proof, as every single U.S. state has a backlog of thousands and thousands of untested rape kits. Those who actually make it to court shouldn’t plan on receiving justice: RAINN found that “out of every 1000 instances of rape, only 13 cases are referred to a prosecutor, and only seven cases will lead to a felony conviction.”

So why would a woman put herself in a situation that is so likely to end with being disbelieved, being disregarded, and being attacked? Why would she risk so much when the odds of receiving justice are so abysmally low?

These questions are not theoretical. Dr. Ford has already received numerous death threats from those who believe she falsely accused Kavanaugh; as far as I can tell, Kavanaugh has not received any death threats for allegedly attempting to rape Dr. Ford, even as statements from his other accusers continue to pour in.

Nonetheless, many people continue to insist that Dr. Ford might be lying before even considering whether Kavanaugh might be even though Ford has everything to lose from lying, and Kavanaugh has everything to gain from doing exactly that. We ask if this could be a false rape allegation before asking if it could be true; if she could be mistaken about Kavanaugh’s identity before asking if she could be correct. This order is not accidental.

Nearly any discussion of sexual violence seems to turn to the topic of “false rape allegations.” The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives (as opposed to one in 71 men) and that as few as 2 percent of reports of rape are false.

These numbers are even grimmer for queer people and women of color. The Human Rights Campaign reports that as many as half of transgender and bisexual people will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. The Department of Justice shows that black women are are 35 percent more likely than white women to be raped; anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander women report having been the target of sexual violence; 23.4 percent of Latina women are victims of intimate partner abuse; and 37.5 percent of Native American women experience sexual violence in their lifetime.

But the rhetoric of rape culture does not require attention to facts, as exemplified best by the National Coalition for Men. This Men’s Rights Activist group claims (incorrectly) that anywhere from 25 to 60 percent of rape reports are false, making men the victims of a “non-existent rape epidemic on college campuses and rape hysteria.”

Rape culture rhetoric relies heavily on the sentiment that feminists have created a world that is more dangerous for men than women. Trump has used this rhetoric time and time again over the last week, making claims like: “It’s a very dangerous period in our country and it’s being perpetrated by some very evil people.”

The fixation on whether or not Kavanaugh should have his whole life “destroyed” by these allegations reveals an underlying belief that men are the real victims of rape culture. Accordingly, most of Kavanaugh’s unexpectedly aggressive testimony on Thursday centered around the rhetoric of victimhood, as he claimed angrily that “my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed.”

Kavanaugh’s outraged tears throughout the confirmation hearings are an unsurprising instance of white male fragility being weaponized to shut down conversations around misogyny. The sympathy garnered by his seeming devastation will likely be used to justify Republican Senators’ denial of the truth of Ford’s allegations. 

Continuing the trend of crying wolf, last Thursday several male Republican senators — who, after Ford’s testimony, suddenly reclaimed speaking time from the female prosecutor they had hired to question Ford and Kavanaugh — used their platform to rail against the supposed mistreatment of Kavanaugh rather than to question him.

Perhaps most memorable were Senator Graham’s indignant shouts at Democrats: “If you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.” 

Nevermind the fact that Kavanaugh is not being criminally prosecuted he is being vetted for a lifetime promotion to the highest court in the nation. The assumption of “innocence unless proven beyond a reasonable doubt” does not apply to these hearings because Kavanaugh faces no real punishment beyond being rejected. If unconfirmed, Kavanaugh will merely return to his powerful judicial seat on the Federal Appeals Court. This conveniently-forgotten fact proves that there is little substantiation to the claim that his career will be destroyed.

Conversations about Kavanaugh’s supposed suffering also usefully forget the reality that privileged men have rarely seen their lives altered by allegations of sexual misconduct: Woody Allen, Kobe Bryant, R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, Mike Tyson and Donald Trump are just a few notable examples of men who have gone on to enjoy successful careers after being accused (many of them more than once) of sexual assault or rape. It has been less than a year since #metoo, and Aziz Ansari and Louis CK have already returned to work. Nor should we forget that Justice Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court bench today.

When taken to an extreme, the “men as victims of women” logic can be twisted into outright violence. Incels (“involuntary celibates”) have long used Reddit forums to advocate for rape as a way to punish women who refuse to provide them with sex. As one man wrote: “One day incels will realize their true strength and numbers, and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system. … start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”

Though people who accuse Dr. Ford of lying might not be consciously trying to create fear among women, the effect is the same. That’s because, at its core, rape culture is a culture of fear. Women are afraid of reporting because they are painfully aware that their allegations, in most cases, will not be taken seriously. Retribution is a factor too, given that eight out of 10 victims know their rapist personally.

In practice, those who report are likely to be greeted with open hostility. Law professor Anita Hill was mercilessly grilled and discredited by a panel of all-white, all-male senators during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings 27 years ago. Many of those same men sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday during Dr. Ford’s hearing, literally yelling about the unfair treatment of Kavanaugh.

Though other women continue to come forward with accusations of Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct, a profound disbelief in their allegations persists. Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s, has reported that Kavanaugh drunkenly pushed his penis into her face and forced her to touch it at a party in 1983, only a year after his alleged assault on Dr. Ford. This account has been corroborated by several witnesses, and his college roommate reports that Kavanaugh was known to be a frequent and belligerent drinker.

A third allegation from Julie Swetnick describes how she was raped at a party after being drugged by a group of men including Kavanaugh. Swetnick’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has stated that he has significant evidence of Kavanaugh’s participation in the drugging and gang rapes of a string of young women during the 1980s.

Despite this, Kavanaugh continues to deny all allegations, Republicans in the Senate continue to vote him forward, and Donald Trump continues to voice support for him via Twitter: “The Democrats are playing a high level CON GAME in their vicious effort to destroy a fine person. It is called the politics of destruction. Behind the scene the Dems are laughing. Pray for Brett Kavanaugh and his family!”

These denials raise doubts about whether Kavanaugh will ever be held accountable, criminally or otherwise. In Bill Cosby’s case, more than 60 women reported him before there was “enough” proof to put him on trial and he still walked away with only three counts of sexual assault. It’s hard to say what could finally tip the scales in the Kavanaugh controversy.

The argument that Dr. Ford or any of the other accusers should not be believed without proof reveals that the American system of rape culture is still alive and working as efficiently as ever to keep the cycle of misogynistic violence alive. As Rebecca Solnhit of The Guardian so aptly put it when commenting on why Dr. Ford didn’t report in 1982:

“Why should we now expect an ordinary schoolgirl to have succeeded where Olympic athletes and Hollywood actors failed to get a hearing or justice?”

Are you a survivor with a response to this story? Feel free to email me with your thoughts. 

Support for survivors:

  • RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE
  • University of Oregon 24-hr counseling hotline: (541) 346-SAFE
  • University of Oregon Safe Ride: (541) 346-RIDE ext. 2
  • More local resources can be found at safe.uoregon.edu

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.


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