Brett Kavanaugh and the Terrifying Logic of the Boys’ Club

Justice is about diffusing power; sexual assault reinforces and consolidates it.


Brett Kavanaugh and the Terrifying Logic of the Boys’ Club

Justice is about diffusing power; sexual assault reinforces and consolidates it.

by Andrea Grimes
September 24, 2018

Who among us has not gotten blackout drunk with a best friend, cornered a teenage girl at a party, dragged her together into a shuttered bedroom, together conspired to silence her by drowning her screams with our hands and loud music, and together attempted to tackle her and remove her clothing?

This seems to be the consensus take from Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s defenders, who are concerned that “every man should be worried” if something as piddly as getting blackout drunk with a best friend, cornering a teenage girl at a party, dragging her together into a shuttered bedroom, together conspiring to silence her by drowning her screams by force and with loud music, and together attempting to tackle her and remove her clothing, is now some kind of, I don’t know, bad thing.

I don’t know if every man has done something like this, or if most men have — I suppose I take any man who believes this kind of behavior is unremarkable at his word that it is at least unremarkable in his lived experience, which is an awful presumption for another essay.

But I do believe that Brett Kavanaugh has done this thing, because I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez. And I believe that willfully treating any instance of sexual assault as if it is a harmless, youthful indiscretion is dangerous, but treating a conspiracy to commit sexual assault between two wealthy, drunk young men as some kind of understandable, bumbling accident that could happen to anyone is altogether more appalling.

Rape culture loves mixed signals and fuzzy memories. Anything to explain away predatory behavior as a hysterical overreaction, or merely a regrettable date and too much to drink. Rape apologists take comfort in the smoky, leather-lined boys’ club that occupies the space between he said and she said.

I keep thinking about that boys’ club. Thinking about who built it. Who handles the mortgage? Who maintains and tidies it? Who keeps those big, mahogany doors open, welcoming each new member with a whiskey, neat, and a soothing whisper about due process and the statute of limitations and the court of public opinion. Who polishes the brass engraving — Boys Will Be Boys — above the threshold?

Judge Brett Michael Kavanaugh
Judge Brett Michael Kavanaugh  Wikimedia/.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

Is there a special room in the club for boys who say to other boys: Let’s do this one together? Brett Kavanaugh would be in that room, with his friend Mark Judge. They have done a lot of work on the boys’ club together, each in their way, over the years. Kavanaugh went the respectable route, using the tools of law to empower the patriarchy. Judge styled himself a recovered bad boy, spending unknown hours online attempting to discredit survivors of sexual assault and abuse, and writing self-indulgently and, perhaps tellingly, about masculine power.

When two men work on something like that together — on their own special corner of the boys’ club, the one that is not just between he said and she said, but between he said and he said and she said — what are we to make of how they view women, how they view truth, how they view right and wrong and the relationship between those things?

The things that Dr. Ford and Ramirez experienced at those parties are against the law. What, then, does Brett Kavanaugh, who seeks to sit on the highest court in the land, make of the law? To whom does he believe the law applies? What does he believe the law is for? Is he capable of using good judgment — in the legal sense or in the moral sense — to evaluate injustice? After all, many of Kavanaugh’s supporters, and many people in general across the political spectrum, believe that justice is blind and that the law is about logic, truth, or objectivity.

I don’t agree that that is either the historical purpose or the current practice of the American legal system, but I’m willing to work with this popular premise for the sake of argument. The Trump administration is proposing that Brett Kavanaugh be tasked with using his best reasoning skills to set legal precedent that will not only affect or influence the lives of hundreds of millions of people, but will dictate the terms of their civic engagement and indeed their survival — their access to the voting booth, their access to a doctor’s office, their recourse when they are targeted by racist police, or fired by homophobic employers.

Rape culture loves mixed signals and fuzzy memories.

After all, there is a terrifying logic at work when a man says to another man, Let’s see what we can do to this woman, together. It is eminently reasonable, in the most literal sense of the word, to deduce that two men claiming “we didn’t” is better than one saying “I didn’t.” It is objectively more effective, if your goal is to exert your power over a woman — and that is the purpose of sexual assault — to enlist the help of a friend in doing so.

This is not how we popularly talk about sexual assault, usually the domain of the fumblings and feelings and misunderstandings that obfuscate the motivations — the highly logical motivations — of abusers, assaulters, and harassers who believe the world owes them deference and submission. But there it is: sexual assault is about the reinforcement and consolidation of power, and two men are more powerful than one. So what can we deduce about Kavanaugh’s fitness for the Supreme Court, knowing this?

Justice — true justice — is about diffusing power. This is why narratives about reclaiming America and rhetoric around law and order play so well in a political moment when progress has begun knocking at the door of the boys’ club. I imagine the boys inside parting the curtains, peering outside, talking about back doors and panic rooms, just in case.

I don’t believe that Brett Kavanaugh wants to make the world a more just place. I believe he wants to reinforce and consolidate power. Because he has done it before, and because it is, in the darkest and most disturbing ways, the logical thing for a boy like him to do.

Andrea Grimes is the manager of communications and development at If/When/How, where this column first appeared.