This week, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice, despite massive protests, making him the 4th on the bench that has been nominated by a president that was not elected by popular vote. The repercussions of this within the realm of the law and social justice is far reaching, especially in terms of women’s reproductive rights, preserving the sanctity of voting rights and legislation and regulation of money used in elections, and the tearing down of the checks and balances that most of us would hope would keep the current administration from becoming fully fascist and staying in power regardless of crimes committed and impeachment proceedings looking likely. The fact that he absolutely lied under oath and behaved in a manner unbefitting someone aspiring to the honour of the Supreme Court, while not even trying to hide his partisanship should disqualify him immediately. But it didn’t.
The main issue here though, the one that has women (and men) the world over exploding in righteous fury, is that this man can be quite credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults, and still be confirmed in a key position that may well control whether or not women have control over their own bodies.This puts the entire #MeToo movement in the position of absolute exasperation; even though more and more women are coming forward with their own stories, the message from Washington is clear: “Oh, You Too? We Don’t Care.”
My first experience around sex was being raped at age 14 by what was considered at the time to be a family friend. I did not disclose that until I was 17, and in my personal experience, the repercussions of that disclosure were a reminder of why I didn’t do it right away. I’ve experienced 6 or 7 sexual assaults since then (the number depends on whether you count assailants or instances), the last being on the streets of Auckland just a few months ago. By now, I am fully trained in how disclosure can go horribly wrong for the survivor.
Let me be clear. Regardless of the individual circumstances, it is the culture of shame and immediate disbelief directed towards survivors of sexual assault that I have issue with. It is time to call it what it is; so I am coining a new term: Rapism. That may sound a bit alarmist, but I assure you that it does not feel that way to victims. This is different than sexism or misogyny, although it does encompass both of those. It includes what has been referred to as White Male Privilege, and Toxic Masculinity. Rapism regards the basic assumption of entitlement that men have over women’s bodies, and the cultural normalisation based on that assumption that ensues. It is ingrained, not just in men, but in all of us at a very young age and perpetuated even into the highest reaches of law and politics. And it needs to be brought to heel.
The best way I can explain this is to bring you through my own experiences, which I will do even knowing the repercussions of doing so, which often result in hard-core shame, disbelief, and death/rape threats. I do this first of all in solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick, and all the fellow accusers that are reliving the worst moments of their lives in order to invoke change and keep unqualified and dangerous people from getting into high offices of major level decision making. I do this also because it only ever serves the oppressors to keep silent about these things, to keep a quiet shame instead of a riotous anger. Let’s start with age 5. A boy pinches me, pulls my hair, and spits on me every day at school. I tell the teachers, and they do very little to keep him away. I tell family, and am told, “He probably just likes you; that’s how boys act when they like you.” The conclusion I take from this: I can be assaulted by a boy, disclose about it, and instead of protection and justice, I’m told that I ought to be flattered by it, that it is a good thing. The conclusion the boy takes from this: He can hurt a girl and nobody will ever do anything about it. How nice for him.
Moving onto age 12: I begin to develop breasts. Boys in school make a direct correlation between this and how “easy” I am. Keep in mind, I am a child; I’ve never even shared a kiss, but all of us girls are rated by our bodies’ stages of development as to how much of a slut we all are. But boys are just like that because they don’t know what to do with their new hormonal feelings, right? No. This is immediately sexualising and shaming us based not on our choices, but by how our bodies look. We are then ingrained to feel this shame every time we receive an unsolicited look or comment from boys and men that we will encounter every day for the rest of our lives.
That was the age that I began babysitting for this aforementioned family friend, who had just had a baby girl. By the time I was 14, I’d been a member of this family for a while, and was responsible of the raising of this child. At school, I’d be denigrated, but as the caretaker, I was loved, respected, almost revered. It wasn’t until very recently that I can now recognised this behaviour for what it was: grooming me for a rather different position in the family.
This changed one night on November 9th, when I found myself held down, hands behind my back, head held in place to only be able to look at the nightstand, on which was placed a digital clock and a gun. I can promise you that the digits on the clock took hours to move one minute.
I have many reasons why I did not disclose right then, and I have thought about and revised them every day of my life. Basically, I was a child, and I was terrified. As a black woman, this was just the beginning of being trained to fear a white man, especially one that I know is armed. That has been further reinforced throughout my life. That is Rapism at work.
When I did disclose, at 17, it was because I had ended up in the hospital as a result of a panic attack during consensual sex, and had to explain myself to my parents. So for me, disclosure of rape goes hand in hand with PTSD and being disciplined. That is Rapism. When I had told my then boyfriend about it, because the dates coincided with his birthday, he told me that I had forever ruined that day for him. Keep in mind the way teenage boys are taught around that age, that if a girl says no when asked on a date, one must try again and again, be persistent and romantic. God forbid the thought that a young woman knows her own mind and is using her instincts to suss out whom she may feel safe with or attracted to. Relentless pursuit is actually encouraged.
My father was angry, and rightfully so, but because he could not immediately soothe that notion with a violent act against my attacker, he turned that anger onto me, for not having disclosed in what he thought was the appropriate time for me to have made that action. That is Rapism. It’s already so difficult to talk about these things, especially seeing the visceral reaction of my father and knowing that he would never look at me again the way he had yesterday. But to be made to feel the weight of his disappointment confirmed my own fear of punishment that I’d had years ago. This was why I hadn’t said anything, and I guessed I never should have. That is Rapism. I fully understand that this was a situation which my parents (or any parents, for that matter) had absolutely no idea how to handle. I don’t fault them at all for how they handled it, and as a parent now, I don’t know how I would go about this. It’s just not talked about in a correlative manner to how often this situation is continuously happening. I’m just giving you an idea as to how it felt at the time.
Since this happened on a military base, it was protocol that the FBI get involved. It was all very rote, with the disaffected agent perfunctorily reading my fraught and angsty teenage journals which detailed that time of my life; one day blithely chattering about this thing or that, and suddenly morose, anxious, and insecure. I bring this up because I see similar veins in the news today regarding Ford and Kavanaugh, with the FBI and with calendars of teenagers. But this was the day that two major things were cemented into my brain: that this was something I would have to deal with, not the perpetrator, and there is no such thing as justice.
That is Rapism, by the way. Justice is a construct of White Male Privilege. Not the rest of us.
Of course, it would have been a different experience to have had some evidence of compassion and a sense of belief from the FBI agent, but that was not his job. His job was only to collect the facts. Kavanaugh’s hesitance to have an independent and non-political investigation by the FBI was quite telling, as it is not the job of the FBI to judge; just to investigate. Impartiality is what is sorely lacking in that process, and the half-assed way that this so-called investigation occurred is a complete sham and cover-up and removes all credibility of the FBI, making them only another militarised arm of the current administration.
I never heard another word about the investigation from the FBI.
Thereafter, I went through what all women go through in their daily avoidances of and protections against unsolicited advances of aggressive men. Hopefully, you have all heard of the measures we take just to feel safe; keeping watch over our drinks, keys knuckled up, ready for a fight. Recently, when describing some of these behaviours to a white man, he indicated to me that that’s what he felt like walking into a sketchy bar in a foreign country where he didn’t know the language. I think that description is apropos. That is what it is like to be in public for a woman. And that is Rapism.
I learned to walk in the middle of the street late at night, as traffic is much more avoidable than men who grab us off the sidewalk into an unseen alley. This allows me to watch an oncoming vehicle pass me and surreptitiously glance behind me and know how long I may have been followed and whether they have followed me around random corners. I know, that seems extreme, but it’s happened to me three times now, once in Chicago, once in L.A., and once now in Auckland. I moved here at the beginning of 2018 from the United States.
Before I get to that instance, I’d like to tell you about a couple of instances of the general White Male Privilege here in Auckland. One “gentleman” that was interested in me, while pressuring me for sex even after I had mentioned being hesitant and put off by previous rape in my life, said, “Well, go see a counsellor. You’re making me feel insecure, and I want a blow job.” Another kept putting his hands on me. (I mean the grab-ass type, not the violent type.) (And I should not have to discern, nor should there be “types”!) I told him to stop, telling him that it was setting off all of my rape whistles, and since I’m trained to defend myself that that could turn out badly for both of us. I’m known to carry a pocket knife and really don’t want to be constantly prompted to go for it. I left the bar soon after. He saw me walking down the middle of the street from his cab. He decided I was crazy for doing that and that I had threatened him with a knife. I explained my stance on the dangers of walking on the footpath, but he called me “a liability.” To whom or what, I do not know. But somehow, something was my fault already, and I could not even pin down what the issue was, besides my direct and numerous statements that I was uncomfortable with how he touched me. It’s not even as though we were dating. I asked him if he thought of stopping to help or give me a ride from the cab. He never really answered that. So because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself, that makes me a crazy liability. That is Rapism.
I should elucidate: When I say White Male Privilege, I absolutely do not mean that sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and rape do not happen with men of colour, just that the presumption of innocence automatically given to white men is not freely given to others. In truth, the #MeToo movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are intertwined, even specifically regarding Brett Kavanaugh. When a white police officer was found guilty by jury of having killed a black man, Brian Hundley, and of having lied about it during court proceedings, Kavanaugh used his judgeship to overturn that jury’s decision. I keep hearing people refer to these confirmation hearings as evidence that the system is broken in the U.S.; the political system and the judiciary system. I was also recently reminded that this system was built by white supremacists on stolen indigenous land by men who did not recognise women or people of colour as having any rights at all, so this system is working exactly as it was designed.
Incidentally, a couple of months later, I was grabbed off the street by the waist while walking home. Now, normally, I’m fairly aware of predatory energy and will cross the street to avoid it. Maybe I’d become complacent. I definitely was not carrying my pocket knife. And I have a shoulder injury that made it difficult to defend myself, or to break my fall. So I ended up slamming into the pavement, breaking my two front teeth and with some serious road rash that still mars my face. In this particular case, it’s not even the intention that matters here; I cannot speak to that regarding this faceless perpetrator. The point is, he felt that it was alright to reach into my personal space and pull me out of it. He had no regard to the consequences and offered no help when I was broken and bloodied at his feet. Welcome to New Zealand. This is Rapism.
So, why did I not report this one? Glad you asked. First of all, in that situation, it is Fight or Flight. Knowing within seconds that I could not fight, I chose to flee. Secondly, my last situation in the US involved police. When I called them (even though a part of me knew better) because I thought I would be killed by my companion who had broken my phone and disabled my car so I could not get help, they believed whatever he (the inebriated White Man) said and instead arrested me (the sober but Black Woman) and then pulled some unbelievably rapey stuff while I was handcuffed on the way to jail. This is what happens to us when we need help. That is Rapism.
So, I get that, yeah, this is a different country, right? I should have said something so that the rest of the women on the street that night would have been safer for it, right? That is something that I’ll have to live with wondering about for the rest of my life, feeling guilty most of that time.
But do you get yet that this is so far ingrained in us that there was not one iota of information that told me that contacting the police would have been a good idea? Recap: I can disclose, nobody cares. Men are allowed behaviour on the streets that would horrify their own family; nobody cares. Men that either are stronger than me or have a weapon that trumps my own can brandish said weapon and nobody cares. When bad or disgusting things happen to me, I am crazy and/or liable in the eyes of others, and nobody cares. Police will use their authority to not only not step up to protect me, but to do whatever they please with me; no justice or recourse available to me, and nobody cares.
If you think that because New Zealand is far removed from American politics, think again. The fact that the Republican party in power is trying so very hard to push this man accused of horrendous personal and gang rape, not one but at least 4 times, will absolutely affect the planet. Even the words that we choose around his accusations are telling, and vitally important.
Whether we say he has been accused of “sexual misconduct” or “gang rape” matters! Semantics are important. Rhetoric matters. And this is very much a global issue, not only relegated to US politics.
What this tells future rape victims is that even when many of them come forward, their collective lives are worth less than whatever agenda might be more beneficial to some particular political party. This is the man who has confused birth control with abortion, potentially a rapist that will decide for all women their right to choose. He couldn’t even give one woman the right to choose what happened to her body; how can we have put lifelong power over this in the hands of this man?
I get that Kiwis have no control over that decision. What I ask is that you consider the decisions that you make for your daughters and sons. How can you make sure your son is not so caught up in his own machismo that he feels he must catcall a woman on the street to prove himself to his friends? How can you make sure your daughter is heard by you and feels comfortable letting you know when something violent happens to her? Because, chances are, it will.
Kavanaugh could make it so that this president could potentially pardon himself for his own 17 counts of rape, as well as the financial and treasonous criminal behaviours he has also been accused of being engaged in. Do you think him having a term that doesn’t end or a crime that he can’t be prosecuted for won’t effect you? Think again. His rhetoric of xenophobia and hegemony is spreading. ICE, another militarised arm of this administration, is out of control, and gaining more power and money on a daily basis, and we are already horrified by the concentration camps that are in use and in full swing as we speak. All this under the guise of trying to keep the Mexican rapists out of the US; the irony is not lost here. There’s a name for it when that type of racism is made into law: apartheid.
So what is it when blatant disregard for half the population throws us back into the early 1940s?What is it when they rushed this confirmation so fast so that he would have nearly a full month before the mid-term elections that might help end this terrifying reign? Rape has always been used as a weapon of war. Right now just the idea of rape is being used as a weapon; the memories so many of us share are being used to discredit us, to make us feel defeated, to re-break us. This is the end result of Rapism, and we are seeing over and over how this effects politics and law the world over. What I am suggesting is that this begins at home and in schools, and it begins with you.
Diana Phillips is a Californian Kiwi that had the good sense to evacuate the U.S. while the getting was good. She is coddiwompling her way through New Zealand, focusing on music, writing, and philosophy.