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Kavanaugh and Rape Culture on College Campuses

In a later-deleted tweet regarding assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the New York Times Opinion section wrote, “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun. But when Brett Kavanaugh did it to her, Deborah Ramirez says, it confirmed that she didn’t belong at Yale in the first place.”

As obtuse as the tweet was, it points to an insidious reality about how our society views the typical college experience. Calling sexual harassment “harmless fun” suggests that for female-presenting students, trauma and abuse comes with the territory of pursuing higher education, an attitude not exclusive to the Kavanaugh case. This narrative in which misogyny and assault are seen as little more than an ugly part of campus culture delegitimizes the victim’s trauma while absolving the perpetrator of responsibility.

During his confirmation hearings last year, Kavanaugh quoted a text from a female friend who he called a “self-described liberal and feminist.” In light of the allegations against him, he reported that she sent him a text reading, “Deep breaths. You’re a good man, a good man, a good man.” Kavanaugh’s defense hinged upon his female friends affirming his character against over a dozen corroborating witnesses.

"The people who knew me then know that this did not happen, and have said so. This is a smear, plain and simple," he affirmed in a statement. Kavanaugh alleges that if the assault really occurred, it would have been “the talk of the campus.” The multitude of witnesses suggests that it was.

We often hear the talking point that victims of sexual assault are someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s sister, someone’s friend; the list goes on and on. However, if we want to tackle the issue of sexual assault, we need to face the fact that the perpetrator is likewise someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s brother, and someone’s friend. People may know Kavanaugh as a good man. However, by viewing perpetrators solely as strangers in dark alleys, we vindicate the actual perpetrators, whether they be Supreme Court justices or the men we pass in the halls everyday. Is consoling ourselves by failing to pursue these allegations worth the cost of silencing survivors?

Sexual assault is pervasive, affecting people of all races, genders, abilities, socioeconomic statuses, and religions. It is very rarely a crime of passion. Rather, it is a show of power meant to dominate and humiliate the victim. According to RAINN(Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 23.1% of female undergraduates and 5.4% of male undergraduates experience rape or sexual assault. The “bro culture” that dominates universities around America perpetuates a culture in which women are objectified and seen as mere means to whatever ends a boy desires.

As extreme as this may sound, you can find reminders of this in most media outlets that inform our ideas of what the “college experience” should be. Take college sports media mogul Barstool Sports, for example. On Instagram, one million people follow Barstool Smokeshow, their secondary account centered around objectifying college-aged women. Their main account glorifies reckless and unsafe behavior. This is not to say that drinking or partying is wrong in and of itself, but glorifying drinking to the point of blackout creates a dangerous precedent for students.

Studies estimate that among university sexual assault events, 43% involve the victim drinking and 69% involve the perpetrator drinking. University sexual assault is inseparable from the current standards of campus party culture. This creates a narrative in which a woman’s trauma becomes little more than an episode categorized as a “wild night” in a privileged young man’s coming of age story. Barstool and similar outlets emphasize the expectation of binge-drinking and sexual conquest that a male-dominated party culture sets for young men. It simultaneously tells young women that this is what college is, and if they don’t like it, to grow a thicker skin. “Man up,” if you will. It’s harmless fun.

In their tweet, The Times framed an allegation of blatant, textbook-definition sexual assault as a matter of not fitting in at Yale. The tweet was foolish at best, but it shines a light on a problem much larger than Brett Kavanaugh. America’s idea of the college experience is bound with a “bro culture” that rewards toxic masculinity, protects abusers, and devalues women’s experiences.

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