Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court: A Pyrrhic Victory

The social psychology of American sexism.

Posted Oct 07, 2018

In the last few weeks, the American public has witnessed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite credible allegations of sexual assault, as well as questionable candor during his testimony to Congress about his drinking habits and sexual behavior. 

Psychology can provide us a few insights to understand these complex events. One of these insights is that the psychology of sexism seems ingrained far deeper into the human psyche than racism.  

If the issue was racism rather than sexism, and the question was not whether he had sexually assaulted a woman in his teens, but whether he had used racial slurs against a black person, or otherwise participated in racial violence, the debate would have been very different. 

It is both a sign of progress and retrogression that in America today racism is less acceptable than sexism. Women have to prove claims of sexual assault at a threshold higher than allegations of racism. Even two decades ago, Clarence Thomas was able to cower white Senators into voting for him by referring to "lynching," while today white male Senators have no problem flatly stating that they don't believe the searing memory of a white woman.

And yet, the victory of the conservative right-wing in the U.S. Senate may be a Pyrrhic one.

The #MeToo movement has had an impact on American society. It made a powerful man beg and plead for what he had previously seen as his entitled lot. That enraged him. It made senators squirm, and forced a (less than) one-week FBI investigation into sexual assault. The Senate still voted for him; the FBI investigation was severely limited, and they ignored evidence they didn't want to see. But they still had to struggle to squeak to victory.

That's better than what happened with Anita Hill in 1991.  It's not where we want to be in 2018, but there's only so far an older generation will go. This pertains not just to men, but to the women of Susan Collins' generation. They don't really understand the #MeToo movement. They don't realize that the Civil Rights movement of their era was for black males, not for females, black or white.  The Civil Rights movement for women hasn't happened yet. It's only just begun. 

These observations bring us to a second piece of social psychology that needs to be appreciated: 

The Kavanaugh debate, a generation after the Clarence Thomas controversy, is a step forward in forcing America to face the fact that sexual assault is occurring throughout American society, routinely, in the same way that racial discrimination was routine and explicit in the U.S. before the 1960s. We have more room for progress on racism, but we haven't yet appreciated how much more effort is needed against sexism. The #MeToo movement shows that young Millenials and Gen-Xers have an awareness that goes beyond their elders. As female politicians increase in number and decrease in age, we may be on the verge of a major cultural change. 

The generational aspect of this change in social attitudes toward sexism became very clear in Susan Collins' rationale for supporting the accused judge. She emphasized legal notions of due process. But claims about being innocent until proven guilty ignore the cultural context of sexism and racism. In 1900, if a white American male was accused by a black male for having participated in some racist act, like lynching, would it have been enough to assert innocence until proven guilty? In the context of a highly racist society, an accusation of racism should not be seen as unusual, as something that would need to be proven at a high threshold against a baseline presumption of innocence. America was a very racist society; the presumption of guilt would have been rational.  

Psychiatrists and mental health professionals face the current reality of sexism daily in their clinical practices, as they routinely encounter clients and patients who struggle with the sequelae of sexual trauma.

Researchers have documented this reality. Here are some facts:

One in four girls are sexually abused as children. Some 96 percent of child sex abusers are men. About 20 percent of college-age women are victims of sexual assault. More than 90 percent of those women never report the assault. About 20 percent of adult women are raped at some point in their lives. Two-thirds of them never report it. In contrast, numerous studies find that false accusations of rape by women against men occur in 2 to 7 percent of cases. In other words, about 95 percent of the time, when men are accused of sexual assault, the women are telling the truth.

The odds of truth-telling were very much on the side of Christine Blasey-Ford. But they were ignored by the Senate supporters of the man who she said was her assailant. The social context of rampant sexism received only superficial attention: she only deserved to be heard, not believed.

Assertions of sexual assault should not be seen as unusual or unlikely, requiring a high threshold for acceptance, at least in non-criminal circumstances. With these numbers, it's highly likely that each of us knows at least one person who has been affected by sexual crime.

Sexual assault victims and advocates know the truth; they need not be convinced. They know that women fear coming forward, and are disbelieved when they do. They know that schools and universities, where so many sexual assaults occur, strive to protect accused men more than they try to help the assaulted women, in the interest of avoiding bad publicity, lengthy lawsuits, and damage to their finances.

The secret underbelly of the greatest free democracy of the world is that women commonly are traumatized, and if they speak up, they're either ignored or disbelieved, or even mocked by the president. 

The #MeToo movement must continue to nudge history in the right direction, despite the slow pace of progress marked by temporary failures. A racist Supreme Court gave us the Dred Scott decision in 1857, a moral cowardice that hastened a bloody civil war. A century later, determined mass resistance influenced Congress finally to outlaw segregation.  The arc of the moral universe is long, as Dr. King used to say, but it bends toward justice. 

Only a highly sexist society would confirm a Supreme Court justice, given the reality of sexual violence documented above, in the specific circumstances of the last few weeks.  

A generation from now, when the successor to Kavanaugh is being selected, maybe the next female victim of sexual assault will be believed, or perhaps not even need to testify.