NEW YORK ― On Monday afternoon, thousands of women around the country walked out of their homes, offices and schools in solidarity with Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers and all survivors of sexual assault. I walked out of my office and interviewed a few of those women in Washington Square Park.
“Women, they’ve experienced these things,” said Mandy, 26, a student at the New York University School of Law who’d walked out of class with two other law students. She seemed exasperated. “We know what it’s like. We’ve lived it. Almost every single women that I know, and I think… almost all women, have experienced some sort of harassment in their lives that has affected them long-term.”
All I could think was: She’s not wrong.
When I got home that evening, I sat on my couch and promptly burst into tears. I cried on and off for the next 24 hours ― for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when she was 15; for Deborah Ramirez, who says Kavanaugh took his penis out and shoved it in her face at a party when they were both at Yale; for Renate Schroeder Dolphin, who recently learned she was the target of a cruel sexualized joke in Kavanaugh’s yearbook; for my teenage self; for all of the women I know who have experienced bodily violations by men over the years and now live in a nation that tells them every day that their stories have no value or validity. As of Wednesday afternoon, a third woman, Julie Swetnick, has come forward with disturbing allegations about Kavanaugh and his friends during Beach Week (a debaucherous D.C.-area high school tradition). In all of these cases, according to the women, other young men were present, often laughing. That part feels familiar: the men’s laughter, a signal of how little the women involved even mattered, how much of a joke these violations were seen to be.
How many times do victims have to explain why they waited to come forward before it sinks in? For so many men, no number seems great enough.
The reactions to the allegations of sexual assault and misconduct made against Kavanaugh have been demoralizing, if not surprising. On the right, the allegations have been characterized as a cynical political smear campaign, a case of mismanaged memory, or, perhaps most tellingly, simply not disqualifying. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he saw the allegations as “a little hiccup.” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) suggested that Blasey is simply “mixed up.” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) averred that he simply “can’t imagine the horror of being accused” of committing sexual assault. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) argued that if such allegations become “the new standard, no man will ever qualify for the Supreme Court again.” President Donald Trump, who has himself been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, called the allegations “false” and said that Senate Republicans should have pushed Kavanaugh’s nomination “through two weeks ago and we wouldn’t be talking about this right now.”
It’s hard to describe how crazy-making it is to be told that you are not a reliable narrator of your own lived experiences, and that even if you are, the highest priority is protecting the opportunities of the men who forced those experiences upon you. Silence around trauma can be devastating, something that the viral hashtag campaigns of the last few years ― #NotOkay, #YouOKSis, #MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport ― have laid bare. There is power in owning your narrative, especially when, historically, women have had to watch their stories shaped by others.
And yet: How many times do we have to publicly spill our pain? How many stories must come out before women and men who have been abused can be believed? How many times do victims have to explain why they waited to come forward before it sinks in? For so many men, no number seems great enough.
This is not because these men are stupid. It’s because sexual assault and harassment are, and have always been, tools used to forge male bonds and maintain male-dominated power structures. This is why, for Kavanaugh, the opportunity to serve on the Supreme Court is treated as an inalienable right, and why the allegations against him are merely seen as roadblocks to be overcome.
And who pays the highest price when powerful men refuse to acknowledge the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in this country? Women.
In October 2016, just after the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy without their consent, HuffPost’s Laura Bassett reported that the tape in particular and Trump’s rhetoric in general were literally making women sick. Women who had experienced assault said they felt triggered simply by reading the news. Something similar has been happening this past week. Not only have I heard these stories anecdotally, but a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network told me that over the weekend, the group’s sexual assault hotline saw a 57 percent uptick in calls.
Who pays the highest price when powerful men refuse to acknowledge the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in this country? Women.
On Monday, my friend told me she’d been sitting for hours, paralyzed by flashbacks to her college assault. Another woman told me the next evening that a friend of hers had called her at work to discuss both of their assaults. She ended up reserving a room in her office and just shaking. Several of my colleagues casually mentioned their own ramped-up anxiety and depression, and the memories that have flooded back despite years of therapy trying to undo the damage they’d wrought.
I grew up just a 10-minute drive in Montgomery County, Maryland, from Georgetown Prep, where Kavanaugh went to high school. The particulars of Ford’s and Swetnick’s accounts have hit especially close to home. I went to countless suburban house parties and Georgetown Prep lacrosse games. I attended Beach Week in Ocean City, and now, 13 years later, I’m seeing how lucky I was.
That’s what my high school friend and I were texting about Wednesday morning — how very lucky we were. Lucky that the vast majority of boys we socialized with during high school were kind and respectful and didn’t attempt to rape us during our most vulnerable coming-of-age moments. How lucky.
And yet even the luckiest of us have memories that resurface at moments like this, when there is a national re-examination of the teenage experiences we once considered “normal.” Like the 21-year-old man whose parties we attended at 15, who magnanimously and casually warned us not to take a drink from those guys. Or the lap dances we were strongly encouraged to give older boys at those parties, while other boys looked on — laughing, of course. Or the more popular boy in my class who cornered me drunkenly at a party in 11th grade and tried to force himself on me, only to write a vague, rambling apology in my yearbook a few months later. (At the time, I thought I was supposed to be flattered by his attention.)
Teenage girls deserve better than the world Blasey, Ramirez and Swetnick grew up in. They deserve better than the one I grew up in, too.
None of these incidents rises to the level of trauma that Blasey, Ramirez and Swetnick have described. But what disturbs me in retrospect is how normal I considered those occurrences to be. They were simply the cost of being a teenage girl who is desired and valued ― two things that are inextricably linked in the moral universe of a teenage girl.
Teenage girls deserve better than the world Blasey, Ramirez and Swetnick grew up in. They deserve better than the one I grew up in, too. As the nation prepares to hear Blasey testify in front of the Senate on Thursday, we can only hope that her bravery, like Anita Hill’s before her, starts to build a better world for the teenage girls of tomorrow.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.