Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook entry made the rounds over the weekend. On his page, the teenage Kavanaugh referred to himself as a “Renate Alumnus.” The New York Times reports that two of his classmates say the mentions of Renate were a reference to a female student at a nearby school, Renate Schroeder Dolphin. Unbeknownst to Dolphin, the football players and Kavanaugh used their yearbook pages to make unsubstantiated boasts about their conquests with her.
Dolphin called the “insinuation” on Kavanaugh’s page “horrible, hurtful and simply untrue.” Boasting about sex, real or imagined, is also a common way young men bond with each other. To a sociologist, it’s a prime example of something called dominance work.
Men learn from a young age that being manly means you need to be dominant. High school boys try to exert dominance over other men, often by calling each other “fags,” and dominance over women, by talking about them sexually and boasting of sexual conquests.
The young women who grow up with these teenage boys learn to normalize their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse because they are so common. Young women don’t want to make a “big deal” of their experiences of harassment and assault. Those who do are often criticized by their peer groups or policed by their friends for not successfully dealing with men’s aggressive behaviors.
Thus, at a young age, boys are taught that the way to be appropriately masculine is to dominate other men and all women ― and young women are taught to be quiet when men try to dominate them. In claiming the status of “Renate Alumnus,” even jokingly, Kavanaugh was doing what many high school boys learn to do: exert dominance at the expense of their female peers.
Viewed in this light, the allegations by Julie Swetnick are not surprising. Swetnick alleges that she saw Kavanaugh waiting in line outside a bedroom for his turn to gang rape a young woman and that Swetnick herself was a drugged and gang-raped at a party that Kavanaugh attended. This alleged behavior is unsurprising, given what social science research tells us about how men learn at a young age both the symbolic and physical ways to dominate women.
Whether Kavanaugh’s reference to Renate was meant as a joke is irrelevant. Jokes, laughter and dismissal allow men to acknowledge how common rape and sexual assault are in our society without taking responsibility for it.
This joking between men is a form of what sociologists CJ Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander call “symbolic” sexual violence. Jokes, lewd discussions and laughter about rape and assault, as well as dismissal and blame of survivors of sexual violence, are hallmarks of rape culture. Increasingly, Pascoe and Hollander argue, rape culture is one in which rape is understood as both abhorrent and frequent. We stigmatize rape, but we also accept how common it is.
“Kavanaugh was doing what many high school boys learn to do: exert dominance at the expense of their female peers.”
That is how, in the same breath, a man can say that rape is bad and say that something that happened in high school was a misunderstanding, a joke or something they don’t even remember. Indeed, that is precisely the line Kavanaugh took in remarks released ahead of his appearance on Thursday: “Sexual assault is horrific. It is morally wrong. It is illegal,” he wrote. “I am not questioning that Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time,” he continued, “but I have never done that to her or to anyone.”
Because we live in a world now in which most people, at least on some level, understand rape to be bad, men also work to distance themselves from what Pascoe and Hollander call “bad guys” who rape (#notallmen, remember?).
Indeed, this is the emerging Kavanaugh defense. Journalist Nancy Cook reports that a Republican close to the Kavanaugh confirmation told her that “You can’t be a rapist and alcoholic at the age of 17 and then years later, become a highly accomplished person.” We understand rapists as permanent bad guys who cannot and do not become the “good guys” that Kavanaugh argues he is today.
This argument works especially well for Kavanaugh as a white man with access to wealth, two degrees from Yale and a career as a judge. These are all markers of trustworthiness, success and “goodness” in our culture. How could Kavanaugh have achieved this success if he was a bad guy?
Kavanaugh tried the “good guys” tactic in his Monday night Fox News interview as well: He tried to prove that Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her in high school was impossible by claiming that he didn’t have sex until after he graduated.
But that explanation just tells us that he wants to be seen as a good guy. He was implying that a man who has never had intercourse cannot pin a woman down and cover her mouth. A virgin can, of course, do that ― and a virgin can commit sexual assault. Claiming virginity here is an effort to distance himself from the bad guys of the world and paint himself as an innocent good guy who could not have assaulted anyone.
But my research suggests that masculine bonding at the expense of women might be even stronger among men who are virgins. I spoke to men ages 19 to 25 who were virgins to understand how virginity affected how they saw themselves as men. Male virginity is often stigmatized, so the men I spoke to had to find other ways to be accepted as manly. They would talk to other men about sex frequently to show how hard it was to keep themselves from doing it.
For example, the men I interviewed were part of a support group where they openly discussed pornography, masturbation and lust. These conversations allowed them to prove their masculinity even when they weren’t having sexual experiences. They could highlight how hard it was to avoid sexual temptations, showing their friends that they were masculine, sexual men.
When Kavanaugh or other men respond to allegations of sexual assault by making themselves look like good guys, they’re trying to pin the blame on other “bad” men as failures of masculinity. This good guy defense is brilliant. It allows men to make the problem of sexual assault and rape about being an individual ― the work of bad men, not a bad culture ― when we know that it is actually a widespread cultural problem. When men point to others as the problem, we are left with individual accounts, denials, and explanations that hide the overarching theme in all of them: masculinity and dominance.
This good guy rhetoric repeats the same cycle we are all taught at an early age: that men are in charge of the conversation and of women’s bodies and that women’s voices are dismissed or berated when we dare speak up. As the Kavanaugh hearings begin, we must pay attention to the social science research that helps us understand that the responses to these allegations are a form of dominance and silencing as well.
Kavanaugh’s responses to these allegations, along with the responses of his defendants, remind women what we already know too well: that the burden of proof is on us to hold the “good guys” accountable and that even when we try to hold them accountable, our experiences and our pain are rendered irrelevant.
Sarah Diefendorf is a Scholars Strategy Network Postdoctoral Fellow. She studies conservative religious groups and their beliefs about gender and sexuality. Sarah has a PhD in Sociology from The University of Washington.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.