There are few images which summarise the world’s attitude to sexual assault better than the one presently circulating of Christine Blasey Ford, raising her hand in front of a judiciary committee made up almost exclusively of middle-aged men. In actual numbers, she is testifying to 11 Republican senators – all male – and 10 Democrats, of which six are male. So 17 men and four women in total.
The Republican senators questioning her today include Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has said of Ford that “people [like her] will stop at nothing” and “I don’t think it’s fair to Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t think it’s fair to our system… I don’t think we should put up with it, to be honest with you.” Then there’s Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (not a woman, just in case you thought an extra one might have slipped in there because of the name), whose thoughts about the case include “What am I supposed to do, go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?” and a tweet remarking of Blasey’s attorney: “From my view, just when it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The lawyer to porn stars has just taken this debacle to an even lower level.” He has also said that he believes Ford is “being used” by people conducting a smear campaign.
Not to be forgotten is John Cornyn of Texas, another Republican gem. He has said that he intends “to listen to what Dr Ford says and then I’ll make up my mind,” but has also said he believes there is a Democrat-run smear campaign against Brett Kavanaugh, “with the purpose of merely delaying the nomination until after the midterm elections, where obviously Democrats hope to regain a majority in the Senate. They haven’t been very coy about what they’re doing.” He thinks that if Christine Blasey Ford can bring no “proof” of sexual assault, then Brett Kavanaugh should be believed by default.
Even Republican senators who have chosen to stay relatively tight-lipped have said some concerning things. John Kennedy of Louisiana – who has come across as one of the most open-minded Republicans sitting on the committee today – told the New York Times that “I don’t know that this is going to be a battle of truth as much as it’s going to be a battle of memory. Thirty-six years is a long, long time. My mind doesn’t work, my memories don’t work like a computer file where I can just retrieve them and, boy, there it is. When I try to think back to college or high school, there are gaps. I try to fill them in. But I can’t tell you that’s always the truth.” This tactic – the grandfatherly, gaslighty, hand-on-the-small-of-your-back, listen-dear-you-probably-just-read-the-situation-wrong sort – is certainly a more politically astute way of dismissing women who accuse men of sexual assault than outright calling them liars. But is it any less toxic?
Of course there are people sitting on the panel who do not have a vested interest in accusing Ford of malice, deception, or being an easily manipulated pawn in a game of governmental chess. But it’s hard not to see this woman standing in front of those powerful men in her glasses, with her carefully styled hair and her don’t-paint-me-as-a-stupid-slut navy suit – employing all those careful methods which Vox’s Eliza Brooke referred to as “dressing to look believable” – and feel sad. Sad for the sexual assault victims who have looked out at a similar room before, in a courtroom or at a university panel or even a police station. Sad for the power imbalance between men and women, made obvious in a case which is all about the abuse of that power. Sad for whichever way this is going to go, because even outside judiciary committees, things that happen to women are “gender politics” and things that happen to men are just things.
“My family and I have been the target of constant harassment and death threats and I have been called the most vile and hateful names imaginable,” said Ford at the beginning of her testimony. It’s important to remember that when we talk about “ruining a man’s life”, what we mean by that is denying him one of the most important jobs in America. It’s important to remember that when we found out in the UK this week that juries are less likely to convict younger men accused of rape, possibly because they don’t want to “ruin their lives” when they have “so many years ahead of them”.
When Ford was asked what she most remembered about the night she alleges Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, she said, “The uproarious laughter between the two and them having fun at my expense… I was underneath one of them while the two laughed, two friends having a really good time with one another.”
What struck me when I heard that was the final part of the sentence. Two friends having a good time with one another, as if there were no other human there, as if the woman were an object without internal life, or part of the scenery – it’s a familiar description of rape. And what’s so surprising is how quickly the Christine Blasey Ford case became all about politics between men again: male senators, shady manipulative puppeteer campaigners pulling her strings, White House officials, Donald Trump.
All too often – and in all areas of life, not just where allegations of sexual assault are concerned – women find themselves pleading with men just to look at them as if they’re human beings. Today, we’re watching one woman play that same old tune in front of 17 men and four women. How good do you think her odds are?
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