Brett Kavanaugh and Bro Culture: Let’s Look in the Mirror

Sept. 28, 2018

Judge Brett Kavanaugh and I are basically the same age. He’s almost a full year younger than me and a lot more bourgeoise. But the summer of 1982, we were probably pretty similar characters. He was hanging out at the country club in Deleware, and I was hanging out in punk rock bars in London. He was drinking a lot of beer at 17 and I was trying to be vegan at 18. But we were both teenage boys surrounded by Rocky images of masculinity and the patriarchal notion that God or the gods put all the world’s women on Earth for us to enjoy.

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The difference is that I never tried to rip the clothes off of 15-year-old girls. My warped perception of male entitlement only went as far as envying the shower scene in Porky’s. I was sexually shy that summer, but he seemed to have an action plan.

Watching the testimony yesterday morning of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was gut wrenching. I have to think that millions of women (and plenty of men) were both transfixed and transported back to their own moments of violation. The trauma of sexual assault isn’t a wound that is just healed by time. We don’t expect war veterans suffering from PTSD to “just get over it,” yet there seems to be some statute of limitations on the waves of devastation caused by sexual violence. Dr. Ford was calm but fragile, as she relived her deep-rooted trauma. Kavanaugh’s hysterical testimony, full of conspiracy theories about the Clintons and “Democratic hit jobs,” would have been derided if he had been a female, but men are allowed to use their anger as a cudgel in absence of the truth. “He must be right, look how loud he is yelling.” (And aren’t judges supposed to be politically impartial. This is like giving Fox News a seat on the Supreme Court.)

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The underlying message is that the starting assumption is men are truth tellers and women are liars or patsies. Welcome to Anita Hill Redux. You haven’t come a long way, baby. And yes, maybe Ford was mistaken and Kavanaugh is innocent, but his “defense” didn’t convince a single rape victim. No matter how impressive your resume is and how many times you’ve flown on Air Force one and how much you lean on the wisdom of your daughters, good men can do bad things. His credentials don’t shield him from abusive behavior. It’s not good people vs. evil monsters, us vs. them. It’s just us.

As I recently wrote with regard to race, not only do we all internalize white supremacy, infecting each of us with a degree of racism, so to we all internalize misogyny, infecting each of us with a degree of sexism. We might not say it out loud, but we (men and women) are socialized to believe that “male” is the norm (a message delivered by your mailMAN each day), and women are, as Simone de Beauvoir called it, the second sex. I’ve written a great deal about the challenges of being a male feminist when the go-to switch in your head says women are “girls” and secondary or sexual objects. I am a racist and a sexist. Brett and I both learned these lessons long before 1982. The difference seems to be that I seek to purge the sexism within me and he has chosen to deny its existence. I half expected him to pull a Trump and claim, “I’m the least sexist person you’ll ever meet!”

Part of the gendered message we get early on is that men stick together to maintain their authority. “Bros before hos,” the frat boys chant. That male bonding was evident in the predatory behavior of teenage Kavanaugh and his wing-man Mark Judge and it is evident in the Republican men of the Senate Judiciary Committee who are desperate to give this bro a lifetime appointment on the high court. Bro culture reinforces patriarchy from the ball field to fraternity row to the senate chambers.

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But it’s easy to point to Brett Kavanaugh as the supreme douchebag of the land, who may or may not have spent Beach Week ’82 plying underage girls with grain alcohol. Whether or not he makes it on the court, he will always be known as the “rapey judge.” Kavanaugh is “them.” We need to focus on us and how our own internalized misogyny creates the rape culture that allows credentialed dicks like Kavanaugh to rise to prominence. If the rise of the alt-right is an opportunity for this country to explore the damage done by white privilege and normalized racism, the Kavanaugh hearings are an opportunity for us to confront our issues with male privilege and normalized sexism.

Brett Kavanaugh isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of the problem. As my wife and I watched Ford’s testimony, we wondered if our daughter would be telling her own stories of sexual trauma one day, trying to convince a panel of old men about the lifelong damage created by one single act. Trump and his old boy network are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that #metoo is just a fad and the old regime stands firm, so I am desperately worried my daughter will encounter her own Brett Kavanaugh at some point.

But if we men can take a deep dive into our own sexism, our simple dismissal of women and all things feminine, we might put an end to the uproarious laughter of boys who have a girl locked in a room and see her dehumanization as sport. We might delegitimize the delegitimization of women and girls. We might keep my daughter safe by surrounding her with boys and men who see her not just as somebody’s daughter but as somebody. We might be able to undo what we have done for so long.

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Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump)

August 3, 2016

Sometimes I wonder when my thoughts about the world won’t have something to do with Donald J. Trump. I’m hoping by the second week of November. But his shameless attack on U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan’s family after their emotional appearance at the Democratic National Congress last week actually inspired me to have a hopeful thought. Seeing Clown Prince Trump claim he’s sacrificed as much as this grieving Gold Star family sent what few military families were still on the Trump Train jumping from the caboose. Trump tried to recover by waving around a Purple Heart that wasn’t his and claiming that he’s wished he’d gone to the Vietnam War (instead of taking all those rich kid deferments).

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Trump’s Islamophobic comments aside, the important part of this narrative was Khizr Khan’s passionate assertion that the the Republican nominee was devoid of empathy: empathy for veterans, empathy for the families of troops killed in combat, and empathy for the Vietnam Veteran whose Purple Heart he gladly took and showed off at a campaign rally.  “This person is totally incapable of empathy”, Khan told CNN. “I want his family to counsel him. Teach him some empathy. He will be a better person, but he is a black soul.”

Trump (and his authoritarian followers) aren’t the only people who need a lesson in  empathy. The lack of empathy knows no creed or color. But, unless you are a sociopath, there is hope that it can be learned. I’ve written about it in this blog and I teach it and I’m trying to maintain it when I talk about Trump supporters (which is getting increasingly difficult after the billionaire’s daily assault on core American values).

Here’s where this glimmer of hope from the Trump-Khan “feud” links to rape culture. And here’s where feminists can find unlikely allies. Every man has some female he loves, right? A mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, gaming store clerk. One would assume that they don’t want that female to be sexually assaulted. So if that dude learns that there is a good chance that she will be or already has been (a one in six chance by the most famous study on the topic), he might feel something: anger, maybe guilt that he doesn’t worry about being raped, hopefully concern for the (potential) victim he cares about, and MAYBE concern for other women he doesn’t even know. Empathy.

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I wrote about this power in a chapter I published in the 2004 book, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. An emotional connection to a female can allow even the most committed right-wing hate-monger to build empathy towards others, including the people they are supposed to hate. So many hate group members left that world because a female impressed upon them how they are the victims of hate every single day as potential targets of sexual violence.

There’s a second link. I think most men, even the war-loving Trumpists that want to “bomb the shit” out of somebody, understand the complexity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When my dad was in high school he had a teacher who was a “shell-shocked” veteran from World War II. The not-empathetic 1950s kids (you know, when America was “great”) would make the sound of bombs falling to see the poor guy dive for shelter. What a hoot. Now we all have an idea of the ongoing hell many of our troops suffer when they return from war. We might not agree with the war, but we are all in agreement that those people served in conditions that the rest of us could never imagine and we owe it to them to take care of them and be mindful of the triggers of PTSD. Gone are the days of joking about vets who “go all Vietnam” when they get home. Maybe that was a contribution of President Reagan, maybe it was the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, or maybe it was the result of thousands and thousands of vets demanding their stories be heard.

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Well, I’ve got some important news for you. Those thousands and thousands of women who have suffered from sexual violence can also suffer from PTSD. This includes a lot of women you know, maybe more than you could ever guess. You think there are a lot of reminders of war in the daily life of a vet? Ask a rape survivor about the daily reminders of sexual violence in America. It doesn’t have to a news report, or a rape scene in Game of Thrones, or a Robin Thicke song. It could just be in a setting or the sound of a man’s voice. I am looking out my window right now and across the bay is Cancun. That word alone surely brings back some nightmarish memories for many women (as I wrote about last year).

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I’ve known so many women who have suffered sexual assaults, many when they were very young. Those scars last lifetimes and are heartbreaking. I’ve had female students in my criminology classes burst into tears when I talk about rape statistics. I now give a “trigger warning” before I even bring up the subject. You wouldn’t dream of telling a war vet to “just get over it,” so don’t expect a rape survivor to be on some magical recovery path that the guy who did two tours in Afghanistan isn’t on either. Like war vets, rape victims have a much higher rate of suicide. Both need our open hands, not dismissal.

And there are surely others who suffer from some variation of PTSD, including police officers, abused children, and the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated. These are all people we care about. So if you are a conservative who cares about veterans and police, you can totally care about returning inmates and women living in a culture that has normalized rape. And if you are a liberal, the converse is true! Empathy is a powerful thing! It can even turn Mr. Rambo Republican into a feminist. Let’s care about others besides ourselves. Really care.

The only question left is – Is it possible for Donald J. Trump to learn empathy or is he a sociopath. America’s soul hangs in the balance.

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