Last week, my news feed was plastered with images of a belligerent Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s most recent nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. In these photos, he’s been captured red-faced, in fierce denial of allegations of sexual assault. Perhaps Kavanaugh denies the allegations so vehemently because he, like many perpetrators, does not realize his actions constitute assault.
Christine Blasey Ford tells of a moment seared into memory. Kavanaugh and his friend hold her down on a bed. Their hands are held over her mouth, and the boys are laughing. When they lift her shirt, they find a swimsuit, and that gives Ford an opportunity to flee.
For Kavanaugh, the moment would be fleeting. It’s simply not memorable — it was a single interaction over a busy summer, years ago. Kavanaugh doesn’t see himself as the shadowy, evil rapist hiding in an alley way because he’s not. He was a high school boy at a party. He had close female friends. He went to church. However, these facts don’t absolve him of any potential wrongdoing. It’s not the perpetrator who gets to define what is and isn’t sexual assault.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 7 in 10 cases of sexual assault occur between people who know each other. In my experience, it’s often the case that the perpetrator doesn’t realize it when they cross the line into harassment. Yet a recent online survey by the non-profit Stop Street Abuse found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives.
At the height of #MeToo, my little sister came to visit me. That weekend, she told me about the first time she was sexually harassed. It’s a strange but sickeningly common milestone for many women. She was 16. A man in a parked car beckoned her over, leering. Through the grimy window, she saw his hand moving rapidly near his lap.
For me, it was a bit different. The first time, there was no stranger in a car. I was 10. A boy who’d sometimes chase girls around the playground pulled me behind a tree and exposed himself to me then ran away laughing.
It was just a joke for him. I’m sure he doesn’t even remember it. I don’t think that he’d do that today. We’ve all grown a lot since then, but that doesn’t change what happened.
I will not name this boy. I see little point in doing so today. I know he didn’t choose to harass me out of malice. He did it because he didn’t know any better — because he grew up in a society where small actions are excused until they snowball out of control. Maybe someone told him it was OK to chase girls around the playground because “boys will be boys.” It’s OK, until it’s not.
After witnessing the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, the theorist Hannah Arendt wrote that evil is born of banality. Objectively evil people don’t really exist. Rather, regular people exist within a society that has become desensitized to the point where evil acts are commonplace. For Arendt, the solution was a sort of political literacy: should every person develop their political views in a public space, good would win over evil.
As Kavanaugh was sworn in, Arendt’s solution seemed insufficient. It’s incredibly difficult for one victim to change the whole of political discourse, no matter how sincere their testimony. There is much to lose and little to gain in coming forward with your story. There is a complex moral calculus here — a matter of survival and duty.
If we assume Kavanaugh serves until the average age of retirement for Supreme Court justices, he will influence the court for the next 30 years. It’s OK, until it’s not.
How do we get perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions? We should start by dismissing the idea that rape and assault can only be perpetrated by monsters. We should stop telling little boys that it’s OK to objectify and victimize their female peers — in whatever seemingly innocent form it takes. In an endless sea of gray cases, we should teach children that assault, by its very nature, cannot be determined by the perpetrator. No means no, and sexual assault is never OK.