On Sept. 27, Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh allegedly attempted to rape her at a 1982 high school party in suburban Maryland. Thereafter, Kavanaugh furiously denied the allegation in his own testimony before the committee. Kavanaugh has also been accused of sexual misconduct by two other women: Deborah Ramirez alleges the judge exposed himself to her at a college dorm party at Yale University without her consent, and Julie Swetnick claims Kavanaugh was involved in a scheme to gang rape women at multiple suburban-Maryland parties in the early 1980s (although Kavanaugh was allegedly at the party, Swetnick does not claim that Kavanaugh took part in her gang rape). Kavanaugh has denied these accusations as well.
Despite the allegations of sexual violence, Kavanaugh may very well be appointed to the Supreme Court — though he has yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, as the confirmation vote has been delayed in order for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the allegations.
The case raises a series of complex legal questions about how to fairly and effectively adjudicate sexual misconduct allegations in the context of the Supreme Court confirmation process. Furthermore, it has ignited a much-needed conversation about how to provide victims of sexual misconduct the space to share their stories without fearing reprisal and delegitimization. And more broadly, the case illuminates the toxic, broken masculinity of far too many young men.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the allegations is the presence of other male peers in the environment of the assaults. Journalist Lili Loofbourow, while referring to the Ford and Ramirez allegations, noted in a recent piece in Slate: “There is no penetrative sex, there are always male onlookers, and, most importantly, there’s laughter. In each case the other men — not the woman — seem to be Kavanaugh’s true intended audience.”
In other words, the allegations suggest that Kavanaugh was motivated to assault his female peers in order to excite and impress his depraved male friends, the “onlookers.” The allegations also suggest the cowardice of these male bystanders. Why didn’t any of Kavanaugh’s friends at these parties intervene to prevent the alleged violence? Worse still, if the allegations are true, Kavanaugh’s friends seem to have been not just indifferent bystanders but rather enablers of sexual assault.
Consequently, the Kavanaugh accusations exhibit the toxic performativity and groupthink of masculinity. For Kavanaugh and his friends, the public performance of masculine violence epitomized masculinity. Conventional masculinity, after all, is not an inherent birthright, but rather a hyper-fragile social construct. Many men feel compelled to submit to it, as they wonder: what is maleness without masculinity?
Proving one’s masculinity — which for many men means proving one’s social worth — requires continuous peer recognition of one’s masculine identity. Masculinity is nothing but an arbitrary marker determined by one’s social environment. It seems that for Kavanaugh, such masculine recognition by his peers may have necessitated his alleged violation and dehumanization of women.
Heteronormative masculinity — that is, masculinity that only men who have sex with (and only with) women and who project strength and authority can claim — is institutionalized in elite educational institutions. Kavanaugh heavily engaged in a drunken, elitist party culture during his high school years at Georgetown Preparatory School and during his college years at Yale. Such a culture also has existed at Princeton — and continues to this day.
Take a walk down Prospect Avenue on a Saturday night or enter an eating club, and you will most certainly observe performances of aggressive, entitled masculinity that make Princeton women (and some men) feel profoundly unsafe. And according to the 2017 We Speak survey on sexual misconduct at the University, an overwhelming number of Princeton women, as well as a large percentage of Princeton men, have been sexually violated. The survey found that: “Approximately one in four (27%) undergraduate women reported having experienced some form of inappropriate sexual behavior during the 2016-17 school year, as compared to 1 in 9 (12%) undergraduate men.”
Brett Kavanaugh, accordingly, is a product of an elite American subculture that privileges those who can claim a hegemonic, heteronormative masculinity. While we can’t expect the U.S. Senate to hold Kavanaugh and others accountable for their misogyny, we can and must strive to empower women and men to assert their worth and express their identities outside of the imprisoning dictates of our masculine world.
Although I believe that most men are not inherently violent or predatory, many of us do not actively challenge misogyny and violent masculinity in our everyday lives — as we are far too often bystanders. I hope that changes soon, but I won’t hold my breath.
Samuel Aftel is a junior from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.