October 14, 2018
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Brett Kavanaugh and Rape Culture

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

In a novel by a woman author I read ten or fifteen years ago, the protagonist becomes frightened for just a moment of her familiar, easygoing boyfriend, realizing that she has placed herself at the mercy of a testosterone-infused primate much larger and stronger than herself. I cannot remember author, title or anything else about the story, but that moment stuck with me.

This is an unpleasant topic and I actually would rather not write about it. Since we have just sworn in a justice about whom there is credible testimony he attempted a rape, and uncontroverted testimony of a sniggering and exploitive attitude towards women, I offer some memories of my own.

When I was eighteen, a college classmate I really liked came over to my place one evening and we ended up in bed. She told me she was a virgin and wanted to remain one, and I respected that. I have moments in my life when the right thing to do glows like phospherence in dark water, and I do the right thing, and feel contented afterwards. This was one of those.

The next day, I saw my therapist and happily told him about the evening before. This doctor, a courtly, portly and rather gentle man in his late fifties I had been working with for three years, seemed to be personally disappointed in me, even somewhat agitated: "Don't you know," he said, "that when women say no, they mean yes?" That evening, I ran into a street friend, Tony, and told him the story. "You shoulda just ripped her off", was his comment.

Ten years later, I was in a serious relationship with a woman who told me she had been raped. I talked about this to an acquaintance who would never meet her, which I now understand was a breach of confidence and not one of my best actions. I looked at him as I was talking and saw his nostrils flaring and his pupils dilating. I realized that men are fascinated by rape; there are huge sectors of society in which, if a man hears that a woman who is officially his friend has been assaulted, he will savor every detail, a very specialized and ugly form of Schadenfreude.

In the 1970's, television made a "breakthrough" with a series of movies about rape, which atttracted high ratings as much because they were a turn on for male viewers as because they broached a serious social issue. Rape in most movies is portrayed as a very prettified act, obviously intended to arouse this demographic. The commodification of women's bodies on television and in film had been going on nonstop, of course, before rape entered the Overton window. In Working Girl, a supposed feminist parable, Melanie Griffith is seen vacuuming her apartment naked, for absolutely no reason. Hollywood's rape culture became public knowledge recently via the reporting on Harvey Weinstein, who gave talented actresses strong and even exemplary roles while believing himself entitled to assault them in the process.

Most recently, there has been some analysis of the casual inclusion of rape as a rite of passage in movies and television, where an assault is included in the story line as a transformative event for the heroine. A male protagonist might learn to protect himself better after being punched in the face, or having his wallet stolen. Telling a rape story is a twofer: there is titillation and character development! On a particularly ugly episode of the Sopranos, which I believe to be one of the most dishonest shows on American television and highly overrated, Dr. Melfi, Tony's therapist, is raped and left bruised and barely able to walk. This episode culminates in an epiphany that she had the power to cause the death of the assailant, by asking Tony for help, and virtuously refrained from doing so. The writers could have arrived at the same conclusion with a narrative in which the patient defrauded her of a few thousand dollars, or stole a prized art object from her office.

While I spend much of my time fighting, and analyzing, government censorship, I nevertheless believe there are moments where self-censorship is called for. Novelists and screenwriters can sometimes refrain from telling a particular story for the greater good. I would hope most screenwriters make such choices when telling bedtime stories to their five year old daughters. I once heard Joan Baez on stage explaining why she won't sing "victim songs". I do not think we should routinely tell rape stories, without knowing a good reason why. In Playwriting 101, I used to be annoyed by some of the truisms, especially being told I needed more conflict between characters. But one piece of advice I took seriously was to avoid putting something huge in the periphery of a story: "You didn't earn that" was the operative truism. On the second season of Man in the High Castle, there is an awful scene in which Japanese police, due to a cooperation agreement with the Nazis, gas a minor woman character and her two young daughters. Bringing the Holocaust in to the narrative just to advance a minor plot point was a very bad choice.

Brett Kavanaugh's earlier life illustrates the nexus between rape culture and actual rape. I don't have much more to say about this. Aside from respecting women, and thinking twice before telling a rape story, the only other thing I can say is that we need to be better men. But it hit me recently that most eight hundred page works on morality and philosophy can be reduced to three words: be better humans.