Brett Kavanaugh and the Creation of the Rapist

I think feminism made Kavanaugh a rapist. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t commit vile and violating acts, or that he wouldn’t have been doing so by his own decision. It’s just that those acts, back then, were not yet attached to the species we now find so familiar—the rapist, the sexual harasser, the man who makes #MeToo possible.

Activists hold up police tape in front of the Supreme Court building. (takomabibelot / Creative Commons)

Michel Foucault taught us long ago that one is not born a sexual species, that instead one becomes one through a variety of discursive practices—expert knowledge, activist movements, laws and culture. That is why the homosexual did not exist until the 1800’s; even though bodies with similar naughty bits got together for pleasure long before then, they were not considered a particular sexual species, not yet. When, in Ancient Greece, men were the insertive partners with male citizen youth, they were not gay, nor were they straight; when Sambian boys fellate Sambian men in order to ingest their manhood and become men themselves, it is not, at least within their cultural context, pedophilia.

Acts of sexual violence and sexual assault seem to have been around since the beginning of recorded history—but those acts did not necessarily produce the rapist, despite producing misery for the women who were raped. But the current #MeToo movement—not to mention 50 years of feminist theorizing, legal intervention and activism around sexual violence—has resulted now in new sorts of sexual species. We have finally named the rapist, the workplace harasser, the serial jerk who ignores consent.

That leaves us with a few questions which we can never fully answer, such as: Why me?

I was 16, maybe 17. He was 18. I remember the party. I remember he tackled me onto the ground. I remember he was a high school wrestler. I remember I couldn’t get out from underneath him. I remember everyone laughing. I remember not having words like “attempted rape” for such behavior, because it was “funny,” and also this was someone I knew, someone I had dated in an earlier grade, someone who called me a “bitch dyke” when I finally did get out from underneath him by punching him in the throat.

I can still feel the shame and embarrassment of being almost raped in front of everyone I knew. I can still feel the anger at my girlfriends for doing nothing. But it never occurred to me that what he did was illegal or even outside the norms of typical high school jock behavior. Because it wasn’t.

Which leads to the next few questions: Is being a straight man the same as being a rapist? Does being a straight man demand you “overcome” the protests of women and girls, using violence if necessary? When people say “boys will be boys,” are they really telling us that violence is central to straightness? Not an aberration, but a norm?

White femininity demands sexual innocence, making it nearly impossible to say “yes” without being a whore; black womanhood is denied the possibility of innocence, making it impossible to say no. Angela Davis has already explained that rape laws were written for the “protection of men of the upper classes, whose daughters and wives might be assaulted.” All women—of all races and ethnicities, across sexualities and gender identities—know that sexual violence is a very real possibility.

If, in fact, violence is central to the way in which normative heterosexual males express their desires; if, in fact, it is not unusual or deviant in any way, but rather, universal and “normal”—then we absolutely must stop discussing this or that man as the problem and look more deeply at how all men must take responsibility for the rape culture they both create and perpetuate, even if primarily through their silence or lack of intervention. There can be no good guys in this scenario, because all guys are implicated—if not through their own violence, if only through their silence.

This is not the time to hear Mitch McConnell’s “concerns,” or even Chuck Schumer’s. To quote Senator Mazie Hirono: “I just want to say to the men of this country, just shut up.”

The last question is the one I hate asking the most, because I do not believe Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land—but I am forced to ask it anyway, precisely because I suspect the answer is no.

Was my attacker a rapist? If, in 1983, a man jumped on a classmate at a party and tried to have sex with her in front of everyone; if, in 1983, everyone was laughing, and no one in the room, not even the young girl struggling underneath him, thought it was rape—is it? I’m trying to figure this one out, to let the unsettling idea that these acts, though vile and disgusting, might signify differently in different times and cultures.

No sexual act has meaning outside of culture. There is no straightness before the invention of the homosexual. There is no white femininity before the invention of Black womanhood. There is no rapist before the invention of a fully human woman, one who should have control over her own body. These things are opposite sides of the same coin; dependent on one another to make sense.

The notion of any woman as fully human is the yet unfinished project of feminism—and, much like the homosexual in 1883, the rapist in 1983 was blurrier, less clear to the observer, less stable as a knowable entity. He was not a rapist then, but I know he is a rapist now.

That is how sexual species get born. That is how women become fully human.

I’ve googled my attacker. I think he died this summer; he had kids and grandkids already. He wasn’t a judge or anyone important, just another guy in a sea of guys who express their desires in violent and violating ways. There’s no point naming him; he was Joe Average. Kavanaugh, however, could potentially control women’s bodies for a long time, so it’s important that we be able to name him for what he is now, to name what he did then and take it as seriously as our culture couldn’t before.

Even if Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez didn’t know it in 1983, rape is what it means to try and have sex with someone, and sexual assault is what it is when you push your genitals in someone’s face without their consent. Even if nobody told them then, we must be here to remind them now.

We must be here to believe them. We must be here to echo them when they name their experiences.


Laurie Essig is a professor of gender studies at Middlebury College and the author of several books, including Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other.