So now we know how the story ends: an accused sex offender gets to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court for as long as he wants or until he dies. To say the fate of millions of women and girls will hang in the balance for many decades is not an overstatement. But shocking as it’s all been, millions of women knew it would end this way.
We’ve just witnessed a watershed moment in our country. A moment when both women and men recoiled from the grotesque antics of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee. A moment when a female victim of assault got no day in court, yet the accused got an incontrovertible verdict of not guilty.
The Republican senators reached their decision despite, in their own words, the “credible” testimony of Kavanaugh’s accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. They had no doubts, despite his unbalanced behavior during his “testimony”…despite the senators’ own performances as drama queens…despite the FBI investigation that lasted mere hours…despite Donald Trump’s public ridicule of Ford. And when the deed was done, the Republican senators gave Ford a halfhearted, dismissive pat on the head. Sure, something had happened but not by “their boy.”
This watershed moment laid bare the great lengths many men will go to when confronted with their sins against women. Classically, such a man will lie and deny the accusation, minimize the offense, and insist he’s incapable of such behavior. He may act hurt or become indignant that anyone could think he’d do such a thing. He belligerently argues he has the right to be angry and offended by the accusation, but how dare the accuser be mad. In fact, if it weren’t for the accuser, the whole thing would never have happened in the first place. It’s all her fault, not his.
As this drama unfolded, millions of women trembled, felt their hearts race, struggled for breath, or sweat with anxiety. Mostly, they wept from all the inner pains dragged to the surface by the men in charge. Those old, saggy, gray-haired, and hostile white men who proved that the sexual assault of a woman is just no big deal. Especially if it interferes with a man’s agenda.
Rarely, do men get to see the lionhearted courage Dr. Christine Blasey Ford displayed during her testimony. Her struggle to not cry, to not relive the anguish, to not be raped all over again by the committee should be cemented in the forefront of all men’s minds forever. But hers is just one story among untold billions. And I believe that, until men stand still and let the history of women wash all over them, the sins against women will never end. So, here’s another story for the cleansing waters.
I was raped 40 years ago, in my mid-twenties. It was a “date rape”—a relatively new term at the time and little understood or accepted.
I actually drove my rapist to the parking lot of his choice and followed his direction to get in the back seat. That’s where he raped me. Afterward, I got back in the driver’s seat and drove him to his car outside the bar where we’d just met.
My memory of the rape was hazy even then, the details blurred by alcohol. I can’t tell you the exact date, time, or place, other than it was a Friday night. At first, when he told me to get in the car, I thought he was joking. But I quickly realized he was not. He was angry. I got scared. I didn’t know what would happen or how to defend myself. I kept telling him no and tried pushing him off me. I even cursed him, hoping he would suffer some terrible fate and I’d get revenge. So foolish. I whimpered until he finished.
I couldn’t process what had happened. I kept questioning myself: was I raped, or did driving my attacker to and from the parking lot mean the act was consensual? After a few hours, I called the Rape Crisis Hotline to get an answer. “Yes,” said the woman on the phone, “You were raped.”
Of all the thoughts swirling in my head at the time, not a single one would let me call what happened a rape.
How could that be? After all, I had put myself in a bar and drank enough to make me overly friendly. That is, I was “asking for it.” I had told my future rapist that I’d go with him to his home. Why would I say that if I weren’t considering having sex with him? Then, while walking to my car, I had changed my mind. I’d been a “tease.” How could a man be expected to restrain himself after getting aroused? How crazy is a woman who drives her own car to and from her rape site? Who lets that happen? It’s my own fault.
Of all the thoughts swirling in my head at the time, not a single one would let me call what happened a rape. So, when the woman on the phone suggested I call the police, I said no. Instead, I called my female friends, soaked up their compassion and consolation, absorbed their encouragements, and began the process of learning to cope and put the incident behind me.
About six months later, while clearing out several big boxes from the backseat of my car, I discovered my rapist’s driver’s license. Suddenly, I had something I could use against him. I had the power.
My upstairs neighbor, a clean-cut good fella, asked if I wanted him to “take care of the guy.” He had friends who could “do” him as soon as I gave the word.
After two days of considering my neighbor’s offer, I thanked him for caring and turned it down. I also decided not to call the police. Although I couldn’t imagine my rapist returning for revenge, I had a three-year-old child to protect and couldn’t take the chance. Besides, it had been months since the attack. Even if the police arrested him, there was no other proof. And maybe my rapist had been anxiously squirming the whole time. Maybe he did suffer. Maybe my curse had worked after all.
It took another ten years for me to see the big picture…to connect the dots of my “victimhood.”
My first sexual assault happened when I was 10. The nice man in the ocean offered to teach me how to swim. All I had to do was lay on my stomach across his arms. So I did. Then he wiggled his fingers inside me. I had no idea what he was doing, only that I wanted him to stop. I said something like “I think I get it now” and waded as fast as I could to my mother on the beach.
But Mom thought it best not to make a big deal of the “incident.” At least, that’s what she thought Dr. Spock’s seminal book on childcare advised. Many years later, I learned she was also drawing on experience: no one had done anything when an uncle sexually abused her as a child. When she was told, “It’s just the way boys are.”
Next came my first case of “puppy love.” The boy of my dreams rang the doorbell “just to talk,” and while we did, he flipped a pencil up and down and back and forth on my breasts. Again, I wasn’t sure what was going on or what to say or how to stop him. Then abruptly, he stopped and ran off to his friends, shouting excitedly that he’d won the bet. He had done “it.” I closed the door and just stood there, hurt and crying, wondering what was wrong with me. I was 12. It had only been a year since I stopped sucking my thumb.
That’s when I started thinking maybe Mom was right. Maybe it really is “just the way boys are.” If so, then I had to learn to accept it.
So, that’s what I told myself when the old parish priest stood at the pulpit, red-faced and screaming, and told us freshman girls to get mirrors and check out our vaginas with our fingers.
It’s what I told myself…
…when a man exposed himself as I passed by him on my way to school…
…when a drunk staggered toward me after a sports event and began punching me…
…when a boyfriend threw me on the bed, beat me, and nearly strangled me because he didn’t like how I had talked to my parents.
And that was it. The moment when I’d had enough and decided to fight back. But I quickly learned restraining orders and arrest warrants are largely worthless for abused women. In most cases, police won’t pursue an offender until the victim or someone else tells them where he can be found.
Think about that for a moment. Who’s really being protected by such a policy? Definitely not the woman. In fact, by the time the police actually get involved, the abuser has probably struck her again, maybe even killed her. And that’s just the way it is for women in America.
After the boyfriend attack, which never saw legal action, I became a volunteer advocate for abused women. My first case was a woman in her twenties. Her spouse had chased her through traffic until she fell to the ground and laid there, as if paralyzed, while he threatened to kill her with the gun he was waving.
A more shocking case was the thin, pallid woman whose husband locked her in a closet every morning before he went to work—and had done so for 20 years. Another woman had been forced to eat all her meals while sitting, chained, under the kitchen table.
There are no happy endings to women’s stories of abuse, whether it’s physical, mental, emotional, or “D”—all of the above. Each victim comes to terms with her abuse in her own distinct way. She processes her assault within the tangle of her own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and truths—within her own stage of life. She’ll take measures to protect herself from future harm and may struggle with issues of trust. But no matter how well a woman adjusts, even if she achieves inner peace and contentment, the memory of her abuse will never, ever go away. And it will rise to the surface and cause pain each and every time another woman speaks the truth of her own story.
In time, I decided there is some truth in “it’s just the way boys are.” But I never excused the boys again, and my abuse came to an end.
Throughout human history, men have told women how lucky they are to have a man, how they’d be nowhere if it weren’t for a man, how they should obey and defer to their husbands because God entrusted the world to men.
Is it any wonder, then, that women learned to define themselves, assess their worth, and stay alive based almost exclusively on how much men valued them? And what could girls and women possibly conclude when fathers sold daughters into wedlock using dowries as enticements? Or when fathers abandoned, banished, and killed daughters because they weren’t sons? And especially when fathers controlled their daughters’ sexuality by mutilating their genitals?
Century after century, men have fondled, raped, beaten, shackled, tortured, berated, infected, and murdered girlfriends, mistresses, wives, or any woman they wanted. Men have violently sliced fetuses out of women’s wombs and cruelly ripped babies from mothers’ arms. Kings who wearied of their wives or mistresses or found them inconvenient have exiled, imprisoned, or beheaded the women. Inquisitors who couldn’t understand women’s special abilities had them burned as witches. Destitute mothers have had to choose between abandoning their babies or starving to death with them. Gold diggers, pioneers, men in suits, and oddballs in the woods have purchased brides through the mail. Today, they use the Internet.
Men have long ostracized women from serious discussions, because it wasn’t women’s minds they were interested in. But in the early 1800s, factories led by men eagerly hired women—especially girls, widows, and immigrants. The men called these women “cheap machine operators.” When the typewriter emerged in 1868, women were hired to fill the clerical jobs long held by men. Resentful, the men would stare at the “secretaries,” blow smoke in their faces, spit tobacco juice at them, and make catcalls.
By the 1920s, men had started calling women “working girls”—a euphemism for prostitutes—and they objectified, sexualized, and treated women as “work wives.”
The word “flapper” was used by conservative men as a pejorative for unruly, unsupervised young women. Business magazines urged men to base their hiring decisions on criteria such as “Is she a pleasant-looking girl?” and “Is she morally of the kind you wish to have about?”
Even as late as 1960, the New York Times ran ads for secretaries, calling for “Gal Fri ‘Vivacious’ $$$” and “Pretty Girl with Sparkle.” And men continued to greet women office workers with “How’s the little girl today?” or “Hello, Bright Eyes!”
It’s tempting to say women are far better off today, because in many ways that’s true. But if the Kavanaugh hearing proved anything, it’s that the “boys” are still doing what boys just do. And getting away with it.
By having a woman prosecutor question Dr. Ford, the Judiciary Republicans avoided revealing their true colors. But those colors shined neon-bright when Kavanaugh testified and the Republicans came to his rescue. When they praised him for enduring the attacks on his character, sympathized with the travesty of his receiving death threats, and apologized for all the hardship on his family.
With each Republican’s defense of Kavanaugh, women saw the men performing exactly as men have performed throughout history. Condescending disdainful men. Red-faced angry men. Deeply offended men. Dismissive self-righteous men. Belligerent indignant men. Men raging at the top of their lungs, contorting logic, and obfuscating the truth.
Then the president—himself a sexual predator—publicly ridiculed Dr. Ford, while thousands of men and women on the right laughed, actually laughed, and cheered him on.
When the FBI finished its “limited” investigation with three days to spare, Kavanaugh’s approval was all but sealed. Republicans said they found no reason or proof that justified rejecting Kavanaugh. In other words, a woman’s word still isn’t enough, even when everyone finds her “credible.”
On Saturday, October 6, Brett Kavanaugh became a Supreme Court justice, and the second assault on Dr. Ford was complete. It never should have happened. In a dignified era, Kavanaugh would have removed himself as a nominee. The Republicans or Trump would have asked him to step down. Protesters would have had more clout. Frogs would have had wings.
Instead, millions of women relived their own assaults and pain, only to be told, again, that they don’t matter.
So why do many women know Kavanaugh is guilty?
Because women throughout the ages, regardless of social status, have shared the stories of how they’ve lived and died according to the wishes, whims, needs, and desires of fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, husbands, sons, suitors, teachers, coaches, bosses, doctors, pastors, priests, presidents, pimps, judges, soldiers, and others.
These stories are the “whispered genealogy” of the female gender. They have survived through the ages in the unseen spaces of women’s minds and bodies. They exist, imperceptibly, in our instincts and intuitions, in the nerve endings of our guts. They hold the power of information. They are how we “just know.”
And if there’s one thing women know for sure it’s that the rapes and attacks, the devaluation and ridicule, the pain in our bodies and psyches, and the fear for our lives—none of these abuses will ever stop until they’re no longer treated as acceptable behavior.
Until boys just stop being the way boys are.