As an attorney who represents young men accused of sexual misconduct on college campuses, Ruth O’Meara-Costello has seen many messy disputes in recent years. Few involve an allegation as serious as the one now directed at Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, but the consequences can be dire.
“We see people who do this being asked to register for life as sex offenders,” O’Meara-Costello said. “This is serious conduct. People do serve time for this kind of thing.”
Since the accusation of assault was leveled at Kavanaugh, many who support his nomination have tried to explain it away, questioning not just his accuser’s timing and motives, but even whether the teenage scenario she described from the 1980s should be viewed as sexual assault today. Even if it happened as alleged, many wondered whether a man’s fitness for high office could be measured by what he might have been done 36 years ago.
“How much in society should any of us be held liable today when we’ve lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue, took place in high school?” former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Fox News. “Should that deny us chances later in life?”
The chorus of defenders infuriated women’s right activists — not to mention survivors of rape and sexual assault who took to Twitter by the hundreds to tell their own stories. Age-old assumptions about rape, they said, clearly haven’t been corrected in the past year’s #MeToo reckoning, when it seemed at times that all of the country was fixated on atoning for the sexual sins of the past.
If the public decides you should not be held accountable for what you did as a drunken 17-year-old, some wondered, what message does that send today’s 17-year-olds?
“I just am seeing a lot of damaging myths about sexual violence get repeated over and over by people in positions of authority,” said Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist author who writes about sexual consent.
“It’s not OK to grab someone and hold them down while they scream and try to take their clothes off. There’s no circumstance in which that’s OK,” Friedman said. “And the fact that there are some very powerful adults saying that that’s OK right now tells you that adults can be very flawed.”
Nearly a year into the #MeToo movement — and 27 years after America unexpectedly confronted sexual politics in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — here we are again.
While the 11th-hour timing of the accusation and the savagely partisan mood of the nation made the claim inherently suspect to some, women’s activists heard skeptics voicing the same arguments they have so often raised about women’s stories.
Why is this coming out only now? Was she drinking, too? Is this incident enough to bring down a man’s good name? Should high school behavior haunt a guy forever?
“It’s very demoralizing that we’re still having these conversations,” said Carrie N. Baker, director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College who teaches a course on sexual harassment. Her young female students are stunned by the excuses being offered the accused.
“They’re very frustrated. They’re very angry,” she said. “They can’t believe that adults would be saying, ‘Boys will be boys.’ Or that it happened so long ago it doesn’t matter anymore.”
To recap: A woman named Christine Blasey Ford told The Washington Post that at a house party in the 1980s, she was corralled by two drunken teenagers into a bedroom. One of them — Brett Kavanaugh, she says — got on top of her and tried to take her clothes off. When she tried to scream, he covered her mouth, she said. She escaped after the second boy, who had been watching, jumped on top of them, causing them to tumble and fall.
Kavanaugh has vehemently denied the accusation. Meanwhile, 200 women who attended Ford’s high school signed a letter in her defense, writing that her experience “is all too consistent with stories we heard and lived. . . . Many of us are survivors ourselves.”
In Ford’s account, she was not ultimately raped, leading many to puzzle over what to call the incident. On CNN, Carrie Severino, policy director for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, characterized it as something from “boorishness to rough horseplay to actual attempted rape.”
Sexual violence prevention activists called the circumstances Ford described clear-cut sexual assault, tantamount to attempted rape.
And while survivors of such assaults may be grateful for what they escaped — the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy — they grapple with trauma very similar to that of people who have been raped, they said.
“It’s about losing control and feeling like your humanity is gone,” said Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. “The psychological impact of a person doing that to you and making you feel like you’re not human is really terrifying to people and very traumatic.”
She was struck by people’s willingness to downplay the circumstances Ford described or their reluctance to view them as attempted rape.
“I’m not sure why we’re so quick to want to say that it wasn’t his intention to do any harm to her,” said Scaramella. “What was his intention and why would he be covering her mouth to prevent her from screaming if she were all on board?”
“If I drink and drive and I kill someone, but that wasn’t my intention, did I still do that thing? Yes, I did,” she added. “Am I still held to account? Yes, I am.”
O’Meara-Costello, the Boston attorney, noted that no one gets a pass from personal accountability for being drunk. And, she and others noted, the Kavanaugh incident is distinguished by Ford’s allegation that he tried to cover up the sound of her screams.
“He’s using force,” said O’Meara-Costello. “He’s holding her down and he’s holding his hand over her mouth, and that’s worse than 95 percent of what I see.”
Still, experts say, many people have a hard time seeing such youthful behavior as violent, when the accused is a person of prominence. As President Trump said last week of Kavanaugh: “He is such an outstanding man. Very hard for me to imagine that anything happened.”
That blind spot wasn’t born in the heated politics of the moment, Scaramella noted. It’s typical.
When Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in 2016, a Superior Court judge sentenced him to six months in county jail, saying, “I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life.”
When 18-year-old Owen Labrie was accused of raping a 15-year-old freshman at St. Paul’s School, the elite New Hampshire prep school, prominent parents and alumni raised money for his legal defense.
Ford agreed Saturday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, though the final ground rules for her appearance were still being negotiated. Kavanaugh will also testify, but the committee will not hear other evidence or witnesses that might bolster the case of either side.
In 1991, Anita Hill similarly testified before the committee about sexual harassment she said she endured from a Supreme Court nominee, Thomas, who was ultimately confirmed to the court. Then, as now, people asked why an accuser would emerge so late in the process with a charge so explosive or why she had not reported the incident at the time.
Trump weighed in on Twitter Friday morning, saying that if the attack were as bad as Ford alleges, “charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
He was immediately answered by hundreds of survivors of sexual assault — using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport — who listed scores of reasons for not coming forward after being attacked:
“Afraid for my family’s reputation.”
“It was family.”
“I was a child and I was weak.”
“I was raped by a cop. No one would have believed me.”
“Because even typing this tweet decades later is giving me a panic attack.”
Experts on sexual violence say that a reluctance to report sexual assault is not unusual; it’s the norm. Researchers in Texas, for example, have concluded that only 9 percent of sexual assaults get reported in that state.
“While we have moved mountains over the last 20 years, we have also stood in exactly the same place,” said Noel Busch-Armendariz, director of the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin. “We can’t see ourselves in the story. We still want to do the arm’s-length distance from it.”
That distancing continues, nearly a year after the #MeToo movement turned the lens on sexual politics, putting women in the starring roles, as stories began to focus on the personal and professional damage they suffered after resisting the sexual overtures of powerful men like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
This latest episode in the American saga of sex and power, Friedman said, shows we’re still far too often framing the argument from the man’s perspective. A woman’s denial or failure to remember an incident is enough to convince some that it didn’t happen.
“The idea that men’s experience is what we should measure by is the most pernicious idea that’s being peddled right now,” Friedman said. “That’s what all these people are saying — that we should measure by this guy’s experience, not by the cost she was made to pay.”