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Days of rage in the bastions of male privilege

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was a long-overdue moment of reckoning in the centuries-long tradition of ignoring or justifying male sexual predation in the name of power. In an emotional yet unfailingly patient three-hour appearance, Ford evoked the all-too-common trauma experienced by girls who happen to find themselves in the path of male friends and colleagues who cross the line into menacing, violent, and callous abuse.

And the other unmistakable message of Thursday’s surreal Senate spectacle is that men in the orbit of elite privilege—from the leafy Maryland suburb where Ford grew up to the corridors of the U.S. Senate itself—continue to dismiss and diminish the true nature of the sexual and moral license they routinely enjoy. Sexual impunity in this world is nothing less than a ritual of belonging—a way of signaling that, having proven yourself equal to this brand of casually intimate victimization (the behavior that feudal aristocrats shrugged off as droit du seigneur) you can confidently lay claim to all the many big-ticket quarries of Alpha-level male achievement. For all the outlandish right-wing dismissals of Ford’s character and testimony, somehow the most fitting gloss came via Donald Trump Jr., a preppy sociopath who loudly advertises his safari bloodlust on social media, who sought to sully Ford’s credibility by noting that despite her claim to suffer from a fear of flying, she actually takes commercial flights to various work and vacation destinations.

The surreal Senate spectacle showed that men in the orbit of elite privilege continue to dismiss the true nature of the sexual and moral license they routinely enjoy.

It’s easy to mock the exploits of this Upper East Side Clouseau, but the larger point here is epically demoralizing: in order to gain a hearing in the ur-patriarchal sanctums of the U.S. Senate—that august body that graciously elevated Clarence Thomas to the high court on a bipartisan vote—a female accuser has to fend off every brand of insinuation against her character and motivations, at every conceivable level. Hence, the GOP majority’s designated Ford-interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell—a prosecutor in Maricopa County, Arizona, home of the glorified tent city once run by racist, corrupt, Trump-pardoned County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—hurled a long series of nonsignifying challenges to Ford’s incomplete memory of the assault and her later effort to bring the incident before the public’s attention. There was the agonizing and bizarrely convoluted effort to establish that someone likely drove Ford home the night of the fateful party (a person who hasn’t since come forward because, first, Ford’s memory of the events before and after the trauma is indeed impaired, and second, for the driver in question, who wouldn’t have known of the incident, it would have been an entirely unremarkable drive through the suburbs, and likely impossible to reclaim from one’s memory more than three decades later). There were the serial, disjointed bids to establish just who might have paid for Ford’s polygraph and who set her up with her legal counsel. And yes, there was the devastating insinuation dangled before Trump Nation that Ford’s fear of flying was just another piece of cunningly distorted fake news, blasted out by the sick liberal media.

This was all done, mind you, at the majority members’ idiot behest, since the all-male GOP caucus on the committee realized, six weeks out from the midterms, that it wouldn’t be a good look for them to be rubbishing a female accuser’s reputation and credibility directly. This, too, was an unmistakable flourish of male privilege; women are both fit objects of harassment and abuse as well as surrogate mouthpieces for men who can’t be bothered to have their faces associated with the drive-by slanders they unleash on a female witness without consequence.

That sense of impunity extended outside the committee room, when in a still-more surreal press scrum, Orrin Hatch pronounced Dr. Ford an “attractive” and “pleasing” witness. Lindsey Graham was confronted by a woman identifying herself as a rape survivor asking if her complaint would be dismissed because, like Ford, she couldn’t remember the precise date or time of the attack. Graham’s cursory reply: “I’m sorry. You needed to go to the cops.”

That, too, was a classic display of male impunity in power: You, you’re attractive and pleasing—but you, you’re not welcome here; tell your sad story to someone who might care. It’s also, quite clearly, of a piece with the long-ago scene of Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual victimization. Her testimony evoked both a cultural moment and a socioeconomic milieu in which women were presumed available and disposable as a matter of course. It was also, strikingly, an account of aimless teen summers spent in the privileged bastions of the D.C. suburbs. Ford spent most of her afternoons swimming at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase; social gatherings would form and disband in concert with parental weekend getaways—and the Alpha boys would get raging drunk and egg each other into sexual assault. The background acceptance of such predation was so normalized that both Kavanaugh and Judge joked about it in their senior yearbook profiles.

When challenged, Kavanaugh reminded the panel of his sporting credentials, noting that he’d been captain of his varsity basketball team, a wide receiver and defensive back for the football team.

And Kavanaugh, for his part, reached in his belligerent opening statement for the familiar totems of his elite male privilege. In seeking to document the impossibility of his ever meeting, let alone molesting, Ford, Kavanaugh repeatedly cited his sports-driven personal schedule; impending football practices and workout sections would have simply ruled out excess drinking as a matter of course. This claim flies in the face of the long history of substance abuse in the sports world, but more fundamentally, it reinforces the broader culture of male impunity: an admired and accomplished athlete simply couldn’t be a sexual attacker—in part because such privileged Alpha figures are themselves presumed to be maximally desirable by the opposite sex. (This alibi, retrofitted for reality-TV celebrity was also, of course, how President Trump rationalized his own sexual predations—“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”) For a bracing look at how this same dynamic played out in a less privileged community, see Elizabeth Bruenig’s chilling account of Amber Wyatt’s brutal rape when Wyatt was a high school cheerleader in Arlington, Texas.

Indeed, virtually every time a Democratic Senate interrogator sought to confirm some detail from Ford’s account Kavanaugh reminded the panel of his sporting credentials, noting that he’d been captain of his varsity basketball team, a wide receiver and defensive back for the football team. When Democratic Senator Chris Coons was challenging Kavanaugh’s choir-boy depiction of his mostly abstemious college years with the testimony of many former classmates that Kavanaugh was indeed a raging drunk, Kavanaugh directed the senator to the character-burnishing testimony of his Yale buddy Chris Dudley, a college basketball star who’d later be an NBA center. Surely the account supplied by one famous jock cancels out remembrances of all those coeds of dubious character.

The tacit expectation that the badge of athletic status, magisterially intact from high school, should function as self-evident testimony to Kavanaugh’s character is the sine qua non of elite deference: men embody sporting and martial virtue, while women are the reckless generators of unreliable narratives, suspect timelines, and career-threatening revelations about your private conduct. It’s no wonder that the Lindsey Grahams, John Cornyns, and Chuck Grassleys of the world instinctively pick up on such cultural cues, and rally in the same high registers of righteous anger to Kavanaugh’s defense. Male breeding forever speaks to male breeding.