In the days leading up to Thursday’s trainwreck of a Senate hearing, the old white Republican men of the Judiciary Committee stood by their man, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) insisted that the accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford—a woman so composed and professional during her testimony that she was able to explain the biological process for retaining traumatic memory—must have been “mixed up.” And the senators had plenty of support from mostly conservative, mostly men shocked that someone like Kavanaugh (rich, white, entitled) could have his “life ruined” (not get a job promotion) for something that may have happened so long ago.
As Vice’s Eve Peyser observed, these powerful men are afraid: “What if we held men responsible for the things they did while drunk or high on ‘adolescent hormones’?” Their fear, though, goes even deeper. It’s what will happen to the structure on which they have built their lives if this behavior is no longer acceptable—a structure that rests on the ability to routinely humiliate women. Kavanaugh himself warned, in his fiery opening statement on Thursday, that the ramifications of his treatment would have a profound effect for decades. “I fear for our future,” he proclaimed.
What these men refuse to understand is that small humiliations at the hands of boys become a part of a girl’s daily life, sometimes whirring in the background like white noise, and other times poisoning every minute of her day. And over time, they eat away at her sense of self.
One of the earliest experiences many girls have in school is of a boy engaging her in some physical, “harmless” way. It might be a pull on her pigtail. A tug of her skirt. If he’s feeling particularly bold, maybe it’s a shove in the lunchroom or a pinch on the arm. It’s an alarming invasion of private space for a child.
And yet, the first time you report such an experience, a well-meaning teacher or parent will assure you that it was no big deal, that it’s a sign that a boy likes you—which, you will soon learn, ought to be your greatest desire, an honor worth seeking.
But you never quite shake the embarrassment of someone touching you without your permission, in a way that—despite what adults insist—makes you feel small, and disposable.
Over time, the game escalates. You find yourself in the eighth grade and a boy snaps your bra strap while you’re walking to math class. He cracks up with his friends down the hallway. You are mortified—compounded by the existing shame you might feel for your changing body. But what can you do? Calling attention to the incident will only sharpen the target on your back.
You see what happens to unluckier girls around you—the ones who developed breasts by the fifth grade and were mercilessly taunted by boys whom no adult dared tame, let alone educate. The result was that, as girls on the receiving end of these supposedly natural male impulses, we were implicitly responsible for watching our every move in order to emerge unscathed. And, of course, nobody did.
This isn’t to say that every boy humiliates girls—and it certainly isn’t the case that every boy assaults girls. Nor is it to suggest that girls are weak and cowering. Little girls have extraordinary spirits. It is precisely because of their resilience that they can emerge through all this nonsense.
But the near-ubiquitous acceptance of that early degradation quietly seeds a permission structure for some men to pursue some women more violently and, it would seem, think nothing of it. It makes it possible for these incidents to become unremarkable for those boys, and unforgettable for the girls they harm. It feeds into the notion that no man should be punished for a crime of their youth even if that crime is attempted rape.
And it makes it likely that many of those girls will stay silent, fearful of, well, everything.
We girls leave high school and become women. Many of us were lucky enough to avoid assault. Regardless, we move on with our lives and make our way in the world. But for so many women, that hollowed, humiliated girl never really goes away.
A byproduct is that we are conditioned to apologize for whatever space we take up, even when we have been forcibly invited. Throughout her searing, heartbreaking testimony, Ford was unfailingly polite. She went out of her way to avoid offending even her inquisitors. She apologized for lapses in memory, or for not hearing a question. She told Grassley—the man who dragged her before his committee without an investigation—that she was sorry she didn’t know he had offered to come to California.
Her role, she implicitly understood, was to make those men more comfortable. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, felt entitled to unleash his rage at the committee, yelling at and interrupting the senators questioning him. (And imagine, for a moment, the reaction to a female Supreme Court nominee waxing poetic about her love of beer during her confirmation hearing.)
There’s a saying that men are afraid that women will laugh at them, while women are afraid men will kill them. But long before we become those women, we are girls who are afraid that the boys will laugh at us. Ford was asked to recall her strongest memory from the attack all those years ago. “Laughter,” she replied. “The uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.”
Over time, women edit our behavior to avoid humiliation, while boys are rarely told that their behavior is anything but normal. Eventually, we edit our behavior—texting our girlfriends when we get home, avoiding walking on the side of the street with groups of men, taking up as little space in the world as we can—to avoid being killed.
This is the structure we need to tear down—performative masculinity, boys will be boys, the whole toxic mess. And this is what those conservatives defending Kavanaugh fear the most. Because teaching our boys, from the start, that girls are not objects on which to beta test their hormones, and that they are capable of being better human beings, would cement their own obsolescence.