Sometimes it feels as if the last two years have been an unending litany of stories about the trauma of sexual assault and its aftereffects. The litany didn’t start with the emergence of the #MeToo hashtag; it began earlier, when over a dozen women came forward to describe sexual abuse at the hands of the Republican presidential nominee, who became president anyway. Watching him mumble through the oath of office seemed to crack us all open, and our pain came pouring out.
Now the president, who by his own admission is remarkably unbothered about consent and women’s bodies, has appointed a Supreme Court justice nominee who is accused of attempted rape. It seems fitting that President Grab ’Em by the Pussy appointed Justice Cover Her Mouth So She Doesn’t Scream.
If Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, which still feels likelier than not, he will form one-ninth of a body that serves as the final juridical determinant of the fates and the bodies of women.
It’s telling that so many pundits and politicos ― primarily male ones ― have rushed to Kavanaugh’s defense, dismissing attempted rape as a teenage indiscretion. Donald Trump Jr., true to grotesque form, shared a crude meme on his Instagram that compared Kavanaugh’s brutal alleged actions to a besotted middle-schooler sending a note to his crush. FoxNews.com’s Stephen Miller dismissed the allegation as a party game. Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator with an enormous Twitter following, noted that the accusations were “convenient,” fretting that “we will start seeing this pattern repeatedly where one accusation from decades ago is given more weight than a lifetime of work and character witnesses that span a nominee’s lifetime.”
It seems fitting that President Grab ’Em by the Pussy appointed Justice Cover Her Mouth So She Doesn’t Scream.
The notion that a woman who says a man tried to rape her would not be a material witness to his character is an appalling dismissal of sexual assault. It’s also a failure of empathetic imagination. Those who rush to put themselves in Kavanaugh’s shoes may have never attempted the alternative: imagining oneself pinned to a bed, a hand over your mouth, unable to defend your own body.
It is a natural instinct, when hearing a story about an attack, to imagine oneself as the recipient of the pain, not the person who inflicts it. But in the case of men sexually assaulting women, it is as if the difference between the sexes is an unbreachable firewall of the imagination; as if men find it impossible to imagine themselves as a woman. I have begun to think many men would sooner imagine themselves on the moon than being a woman.
In a lifetime of reading novels written by men, watching television shows and movies starring men, watching politics enacted by male presidents and their advisers, I have learned to breach that firewall, to empathize with a male protagonist. There are no tired excuses about men being inscrutable or unknowable, about men’s emotions being invalid, to lean on. That’s because men shape even our imagined worlds. How many people moved to New York because of Woody Allen’s movies, or watched an unending parade of beautiful dead women sprawled out on Les Moonves’ CBS?
I have begun to think many men would sooner imagine themselves on the moon than being a woman.
When Christine Blasey Ford came forward to The Washington Post, it was with full knowledge that she would be faced with, as she put it, “annihilation.” Not only the full weight of an impossibly callous presidential administration and its legal apparatus and not only the Republican Party’s mad rush to enshrine its power. No, she would be faced with a nation accustomed to parsing every detail of a terrible event with the exhaustive attention of a collective of actuaries ― and dismissing it summarily nonetheless. Because in this nation a woman is a body, a creature, a cypher not worth trying to decode. She is not a human being worth expending empathy on.
A man is, by default, a human; a woman, less so. Thus, many of the men who have left high-profile jobs have done so only after their victims rose up as a collective, the horrors piling up like silt: how many women’s bodies, how much theft of their spirit, is worth one man’s career?
For two years, women have been unceasingly crying out, screaming out, reporting out the brutal secrets we carry in our inmost selves. The hot crush of bodies on a bed, a “no” unspoken or covered by a palm so it couldn’t be heard. We have turned our finely honed empathetic imaginations against ourselves, less willing to “ruin a good man’s life” than to seek any justice for the theft of our autonomy. After all, when you say no and you aren’t heeded, you are just a body. The ghost of your will floats up and away. And for the rest of your life, when you close your eyes, you can remember just what he smelled like, even if the other details dim. The tang of his sweat and the mute horror of it all.
You are less than you were, after, knowing that for however long it took, you were inhuman to him. A body, not a being. Warm, but soulless.
We live in a country whose laws, by and large, seek to dull and crush a woman’s agency and reduce her to a womb, a vagina and other less relevant limbs. Perhaps it is fitting that a man who allegedly acted accordingly should be the ultimate arbiter of those laws.
But over the past two years ― two grueling and seemingly endless years ― there has been a violent upwelling, along with our pain, of anger. We have begun to remind ourselves, and our male counterparts, that the ghosts of our wills possess the power to haunt. That no one’s reputation can outweigh his deeds, and that we are owed some remedy for our pain. We are fully ensouled, possessed of the same capacity for ratiocination and for love as men are.
We are reminding you at the tops of our voices that we are human, though you might never acknowledge it. We are pushing your hands from our mouths. We owe no one our silence.
Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn, New York.