When Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations that Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party when he was 17, it was no surprise that Republicans were quick to deny it ever happened. What was surprising, however, was how many insisted that, if it happened, it didn’t matter.
Minnesota state Sen. Scott Newman breezily tweeted: “Even if true, teenagers!” In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Lance Morrow said: “No clothes were removed, and no sexual penetration occurred. The sin, if there was one, was not one of those that Catholic theology calls peccata clamantia — sins that cry to heaven for vengeance.” On MSNBC, Bari Weiss mused: “Let’s say [Kavanaugh] did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should this be disqualifying?”
It’s a question that can only be answered affirmatively. And not just because what Kavanaugh allegedly did is so terrible. It’s also because making a show of just how terrible it is on the world stage might help stop other men from perpetrating similar abuses.
The most charitable explanation for the laissez-faire attitude of Kavanaugh’s defenders seems to be that sexual assault is so common that many people find it normal. As Weiss went on to say, somewhat disjointedly: “And that most men we know — it’s a horrible reality. I’m just saying — I’m interested in the deeper cultural thing, it’s a disgusting reality about our broken sexual culture.” The idea that “most men we know” have committed sex crimes is a wild exaggeration, but research does indicate that rape and attempted rape are far from rare. Across 10 different studies undertaken between 1985 and 1998, between 6 percent and 14.9 percent of men admitted to having at some point committed rape or attempted rape. Roughly half of this number had done so repeatedly. This means that, for most of us, at least one person we know has probably committed such a crime. This produces a strong incentive to believe some rapes are worse than others; that the rapes on crime shows are atrocities, while those that our acquaintances or ideological allies perpetrate are regrettable mistakes. The high prevalence of sexual violence can also produce a feeling of helplessness: If it’s so common, perhaps it’s just a given of male sexuality that nothing will ever change?
However, the evidence suggests we can prevent rape. First, it occurs at radically different rates in different societies. It may seem shocking that 6 to 15 percent of American men admit to serious sex crimes, but the percentage of men who say they’ve committed rape in China is 23 percent, and in Papua New Guinea, it’s a staggering 60.7 percent. The percentages of women who say they’ve been raped in these countries are similarly high. This large variation makes it clear that rates of rape are highly malleable. Sexual assault in wartime is notoriously high — but it also differs dramatically from army to army, and the rate changes rapidly in response to policy changes from above. For instance, the notoriously high rate of sexual violence by the Red Army at the end of World War II decreased abruptly when the Soviet leadership decided it was a political problem and instituted rules to discourage it. In the Salvadoran civil war, rapes by government soldiers plummeted once the United States threatened to withdraw military aid if the government’s human-rights record didn’t improve.
The crucial elements seem to be whether a rapist fears punishment and whether he feels it will be viewed as a serious crime by peers. In her study “Understanding Sexual Violence,” conducted for the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health in 1990, Diana Scully conducted extensive 89-page interviews with more than 100 incarcerated rapists. Her first significant finding was that rapists assumed they would never be punished. As one said: “I knew I was doing wrong. But I also knew most women don’t report rape, and I didn’t think she would either.” The rapists were also remarkably preoccupied by what other people would think of them, talking about their victims’ moral failings and lying about details of their crimes to make them seem less violent. They overwhelmingly saw the kind of rape they had personally committed as normal. As one subject put it, “When you take a woman out, woo her, then she says: ‘No, I’m a nice girl,’ you have to use force. All men do this.”
Scully concluded that these calculations played a crucial role in their decisions to force women into sex. Rapists saw rape as “a rewarding, low-risk act” they could engage in safely and for which no reasonable person would blame them. In their eyes, their incarceration was the result of plain bad luck. All this is chillingly reminiscent of the reaction of powerful men targeted by the #MeToo movement — and of the reactions of conservatives this week who are willing to propose that Kavanaugh is guilty while excusing his act as a drunken mistake.
Sexual assault is a crime that is notoriously difficult to prove. Even with the laudable intent of preventing future rapes, we reasonably balk when forced to decide whether to put a possibly innocent man in prison. There is no such problem when considering whether to deny someone the chance to be a Supreme Court justice. All but five men in the world already share the terrible fate of not serving on the court. And, perverse though it may seem, the nomination of an accused sex offender is a great opportunity. Delaying or withdrawing this nomination will send a message that there is no such thing as ordinary, forgivable, just-a-bit-of-drunken-boyishness attempted rape. If we care about all the sexual assaults that haven’t yet occurred; if we care about the girls and boys who will become victims; if we care about preventing the debilitating, life-threatening trauma disorders victims often suffer, we must treat attempted rape as disqualifying for a Supreme Court justice.