America is gripped this week by the Supreme Court hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, a salacious episode of reality TV involving sex, power, and privilege. Tomorrow, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when the pair were in high school in 1982. Even as more accusers come forward–
two three five as of this writing–tomorrow’s testimony is set up to be a battle of the he-said-she-said–but there is a third element to this story we can’t ignore: the power of privilege.
Watch any crime show and you will see the weight we put on the world of the perpetrator to mold their criminal ways. Shoot up a school? Let’s see what video games you played. Black criminal? a product of the streets. It’s not unusual–and in fact is too often standard to replace evidence with character and culture when adjudicating criminals. That is until it comes to those prep school boys and their boys-will-be-boys antics. The prep school of Kavanaugh’s narrative is a virginal version of academic heaven; surely no harm can happen there? The violence of power and control that is shaped by a competitive environment where privilege protects bad behavior could not possibly have any bearing on a man 30 years after, right?
The world of frat boys gone bad is a familiar trope in American culture. Movies like Skull and Bones, Animal House, and Private School (released in 1983 during Kavanaugh’s school days) and TV shows feature a world where
boyish behavior crimes are common but consequences and parents are absent. Hidden behind the Ivies, violence becomes tradition and assault becomes kidding around. This rapey frat boy thing is not mere fiction: a long litany of actual news events feature young men who used their power and privilege to get out of the consequences of sexual assault, their lives deemed more important to not disrupt than that of victims, forever disrupted by a justice system that refuses to let their wounds heal. We are surrounded with a long tradition of tales that stage whisper to us that sexual assault is a normal, if not a traditional part of private school that frat boys believe are part of their rites of passage into toxic masculinity–also know as the old boy’s network.
Neither the overreliance on environmental factors–like the Marilyn Manson theory of school shooters–nor the erasure of anything from the past as some would like to see in Kavanaugh’s hearing provides for the complex factors that make any person who they are. When we examine someone’s integrity, the past is a part of who they are. When we are validating accusations, circumstances matter. Brett Kavanaugh’s environment in addition to Ford’s testimony should factor into verifying–or denying–her claim. We should hear from others who were there and who say they are familiar with the incident. Hmm, we need some way to gather all this information. Wish we had an FBI–oh we do! A full investigation will make sure that all voices are heard and we have a tapestry of voices, not just two.
One trait of this trope that you may notice is that this is a long list of white men. While the GOP is bending over backward to avoid investigating old accusations about Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby is sentenced to 3-10 years in prison and is labeled a sexual predator. As powerful as Bill Cosby once was, it was not impossible for the court and the court of public opinion to see past years of Cosby’s family-friendly work and find him guilty: he was after all a black man, and America has a long legal tradition of finding black men guilty of being sexual predators. Cosby lacked a prep school to blame his behavior on. Black fame without white privilege gave his accusers a chance to be heard, and, after enormous effort, justice will finally be done as Cosby enters jail.
There is no such legal legacy when it comes to white men. Too often white men win in the court of public opinion long before they are held to legal account. Before a word of testimony regarding the Kavanaugh’s situation is heard under oath Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising to “get through this.” Kavanaugh’s accusers are denied an FBI investigation that would examine evidence related to their claims. The best they can hope for is that the man that perpetrated their alleged assaults doesn’t also decide their healthcare rights. The cloak of whiteness protects the old boy’s network from scrutiny; crime is redefined as horseplay, jokes, hazing. It’s easy to bend the rules in favor of the old boys’ network because the old boys are by and large the ones who get to make and interpret the laws.
Neither the age of the allegations nor Cosby’s massive fame and fortune stopped the accusations from negatively affecting his life–as justice would require. To be clear, this is not a defense of Cosby. He is now a convicted sex offender, while Kavanaugh will not have any judgment rendered regarding the allegations themselves. Instead, this is a chance to point out the often invisible way that privilege works to advantage those in power. Even as Cosby was being labeled a sexual predator for drugging women and sexually assaulting them, Trump told the media that Ramirez’s accusations of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault are not to be believed because she was inebriated. The difference between the narratives surrounding one case and another highlights the privilege protecting wealthy white men accused of sexual assault that prevents them from the scrutiny–and just process–of a trial.
Look carefully not at the sordid details themselves, but the falling action, where boys lives are deemed relics of a past to be forgotten, where their behavior becomes an inconsequential drop in an ocean of what-boys-do. Not only are these acts normalized by their sheer frequency, but they are excused with weak slaps, or condoned, simply a nod to tradition that remains unquestioned and un-consequenced. We can and must do better.
America is designed to be a nation of laws, not (white) men. What’s good for the comedian is good for the supreme court judge who will make decisions that will affect women for years to come. Let Cosby’s conviction be tomorrow’s lesson: ignore the privileges that come with power. Believe the women.