Kavanaugh: What Happens When Partisanship is More Important than Justice

Heads up: this post contains discussion of sexual assault.

The biggest story of the last few weeks has been the Kavanaugh hearings and Dr. Ford's testimony about the sexual assault that she endured at his hands. From my background in journalism, I know that I'm technically supposed to include the word "allegedly" somewhere in that last sentence, but frankly I'm tired of seeing sexual assault danced around as something that is up for debate.

Not only have the last few weeks highlighted how complicated it is for survivors of assault to come forward– it seems like no matter how or when they do, they're too soon, too late, too specific, or not specific enough– but it has also highlighted the fact that as a culture we've become comfortable with using sexual assault as a partisan tool.

Political ActivismOn the right, politicians have argued that if Kavanaugh did assault Dr. Ford and the other women who have come forward, it was during his youth and a "boys will be boys" kind of mistake. So far, I have read of three Republican Senators who are willing to delay making a decision on Kavanaugh until the FBI has conducted further investigation into the allegations against him; the others are willing to move forward with the vote for the sake of having a conservative Supreme Court Justice on the bench, regardless of what Kavanaugh may have done.

On the left, politicians and commentators have been willing to exploit survivors of sexual assault for their own political gain. Even though I completely recognize my own left-leaning bias, I've been quite frustrated to see so few Democratic Senators actually advocate for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. There are some who seem to have a morbid happiness about Dr. Ford and other survivors' pain because it boosts their party's popularity in the polls. 

Senators on the Judiciary Committee voted along party lines on Friday to send Kavanaugh's nomination to the floor, although the Senate is reportedly considering a week delay to complete a brief FBI probe, with the request coming from GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.

Partisanship is fraught with issues, but treating sexual assault as a partisan issue is not going to benefit anybody in the long run. The testimony of survivors of assault should be a matter of seeking justice, not political agenda.

In order to testify against the person who assaulted her, Dr. Ford has had to expose herself and her family to public ridicule and speculation. She has had to stand before a panel of Senators and media personnel, and recount some of the darkest moments of her life. While she has accomplished this without flinching or backing down, it's indicative of the challenges that survivors face when coming forward.

"Innocent until proven guilty" is a cornerstone and integral aspect of the modern legal system in regards to protecting the rights of the accused, and I in no way want to suggest that we do away with the notion of being innocent until proven guilty, but I do think that our current legal structures and paths of recourse for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence grants the accused more privilege than the accuser. Brett Kavanaugh sat before a panel of Senators and ranted and raved about how much he liked beer; Dr. Ford had to relive very painful moments that she has spent years working through with her loved ones and therapists. These are hardly equal acts, and only scratch the surface of the physical and emotional burden that survivors are expected to carry.

Ford's supporters say that her accusations as well as Kavanaugh's defiant temperament while testifying disqualify him from holding a lifetime appointment on the high court, while Kavanaugh's supporters argue that his anger is justified and that he must be confirmed, as Ford's claims lack corroboration.

Imagine for a moment what it would look like if accusations of sexual assault weren't being shoved into the confines of partisanship.

What if we set the expectation that no official– regardless of political party– could be confirmed into office with outstanding allegations of sexual assault? What if the accused were innocent until proven guilty and the accusers were believed until probable doubt was established? What if we put goodness ahead of personal agendas? The "what ifs" could keep going and going and going and going, because justice hardly seems to be the end goal of the justice system these days.

While we, as a nation, should be seeking justice and recovery for Dr. Ford and other survivors of sexual assault, we're not. We're seeking partisan politics.

On a personal level, I've found that the tricky part of this debate being reconciling my personal politics with the feeling that survivors are being exploited. While I do personally find it better to err on the side that says "listen to survivors," and do tend to advocate for progressive candidates for this very reason, I'm also working to ensure that I don't fall into the territory of exploiting survivors. Within my personal network, several the most beloved folks in my circle of friends have endured abuse, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence, and have overcome challenges and pain that I would not wish upon anybody. I want to believe in a political system, justice system, and culture in which these men and women are supported and honored, and not shoved to the side and silenced until it's convenient to exploit their scars. I'm growing nearly as weary of candidates in my own political party only caring about sexual violence when it benefits them as I am with politicians on the other side of the aisle being willing to write off sexual violence as no big deal.

While partisanship is a major component of the issue, I also believe that it is absolutely critical to not try to put all of the blame on something as abstract as American partisanship. One of my biggest frustrations as a student of sociology during undergrad is that we have a myriad of theories to explain how social structures define or influence behaviors, but it's so easy to appropriate these theories as an excuse for individual actions. Shaking our fists at the concept of partisanship isn't going to lead to change. Addressing toxic masculinity within our circles of influence, however, will.

As men, it is our responsibility to tear down the notion that "boys will be boys" or "locker room talk" are acceptable excuses for perpetuating sexual violence.

Men benefit from rape culture by being assumed innocent, and having the responsibility for their actions displaced onto the victims of violence. When a man is in a position of power and privilege– or even seemingly on a trajectory for these two things– our culture is willing to look at the conditional factors of who they could be and not the very real factors of who these men actually are. Rather than being held responsible for their actions, men are allowed to make alcohol or arousal their scapegoats, and post their futures as bail for their crimes.

Meanwhile, the survivors of their actions are left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their own lives– all while being questioned and interrogated about why they would let someone violate them, or what they were doing to invite violence.

I don't think it's a coincidence that guys get off easily in a justice system dominated by masculine norms, and I think that this is increasingly evident with the ongoing praise that Kavanaugh receives from his supporters. While partisanship fuels his progress toward the Supreme Court, I've casually observed dozens upon dozens of men on social media who legitimately believe that he shouldn't be held responsible for what he "may or may not have done as a kid." I can't help but think that the men purporting this only feel this way because they see themselves in Kavanaugh. In many ways, male culture sees getting drunk and making mistakes as a rite of passage during your teen and college years. It's a trope we celebrate in the workplace, media, and interpersonal connections. It's something that can become part of your testimony that you share in church when you're older, weeping in public about the mistakes of your past while laughing with your buddies and calling these mistakes victories in private.

As a result, men like Kavanaugh get put into positions of power in which they get to preside over cases of rapists like Brock Turner, and we create a cycle of putting the "bro code" and the enthronement of male adolescence as a mythical time of consequence-free actions before the enforcement of justice.

Rape culture hasn’t changed because most men don’t want it to. Like [Brock] Turner, men benefit from the presumption of their innocence. When rape culture tells men that violating an unconscious woman’s body is just another part of college life, it excuses them from those questionable moments in their own college memories. It whispers in their ear that those times she was too drunk, or said no, or tried to back away weren’t rape or sexual assault. Rape culture manufactures gray areas where none existed and hands the power to determine what constitutes rape to the perpetrators rather than the victims.

While I don't know how to solve the issue of partisanship and the role that it plays in inhibiting justice for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, I do know that men need to do better. The burden of ending sexual violence should not fall on the shoulders of survivors– they've got enough to deal with already.

Instead, it's going to require that men of all walks of life start to engage with their own attitudes about sexual violence, and to engage with other men in a way that challenges the norms of male behavior. It's going to require that we stop trying to make masculinity out to be this powerful, dominating spirit that is willing to view others as objects; it's going to require replacing dominance with empathy. It's going to require allowing men to be vulnerable and express their emotions, rather than forcing them to bottle them up and getting to a place where they can't process what they're feeling.

And, perhaps most importantly, it's going to require that we hold each other accountable. The bro code is due for an update. If guys truly want what is best for each other, then they should hold each other to a higher standard, and be willing to challenge each other when one of us spouts off nonsense rooted in sexual violence or misogyny. 

I'll end by saying that we shouldn't be afraid to have these conversations with our peers. Doing so is not a form of weakness, but one of courage. JK Rowling, via Dumbledore, said it best:

“There are all kinds of courage," said Dumbledore, smiling. "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone