Patterns of Abuse Echo Plainly in the Kavanaugh Hearings
There is ample research to show our dominant “man box” culture of masculinity strips boys of their relational capacities, including their ability to have social connection and, by extension, empathy. It does so primarily by encouraging us to bully and police each other as proof of our manhood.
Boys and men are forced into a pecking order of bullying and abuse to prove their manhood, and we never stop making them prove it. As a result, they buy into bullying and abuse as central mechanisms for forming and expressing identity. This culture of bullying links directly to more violent forms of abuse, including sexual assault.
I fully understand that the mention of sexual assault is a triggering subject. I do not raise the issue in relation to hearings on Brett Kavanaugh lightly, and I don’t do so without raising the ugly specter of my own history as a survivor of abuse.
As early as age five, I lived in fear of my own abuser. Other boys were often unpredictable and sometimes violent, but this one boy was intensely focused on me and me alone. His violent and unyielding presence in my young life meant I spent years — over a decade — carefully tracking his moods and daily movements and where his attention was directed. This abuser/survivor relationship requires a huge amount of energy and comes at a high price, stripping victims of our sense of identity, agency, and physical integrity, sometimes for the rest of our lives.
I cannot know who I might have become were he not in my life. I do not grant him power over who I have become, but he remains with me. And whenever I hear someone tell their story of abuse, I get ready for the backlash, both from the abuser they will publicly face and inside my own gut, from my abuser, who remains with me as a physical presence to this day.
For abusers, the performance of rage is the card they always play, performed as indignation at what they would frame as an unfair process.
Was it sexual assault? I can’t entirely say. Sexual assault, as we know, is about abusive power. It is about breaking down the integrity of another’s emotional or physical autonomy. Intimate physical details of my abuser remain with me to this day. After 50 years, I still remember how he smells. I still remember the pressure of his body against me. I still remember his smile as he closed in over and over again. But most of all, I still remember his rage whenever I stood up to him.
The fact that my own safety was left up to me to manage from a terribly early age tells us volumes about how boys are taught to become men in America. Be tough. Stand up for yourself. Man up. Fight back. It puts the onus on the victim. My own story is deeply informed by the man box culture we all are embedded in, and as I watched events play out in the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I saw several very clear markers that brought back my own experiences.
Republican senators have gotten what they want, namely control of the Supreme Court. In order to get it, they wrested control of the Supreme Court from the rest of us. This is a textbook act of dominance. Voices in the Senate chambers said over and over, “There is credible evidence of sexual abuse. We need a fuller investigation.” As a result, Republican senators on the committee as well as Kavanaugh himself grew increasingly angry and reactive. This same pattern is seen whether dominance plays out in public or private spaces; the assertion of dominance followed by increasing anger if there is resistance. For abusers, the performance of rage is always the final card they play. In the case of the Republican Senators, their anger was performed as indignation at what they would frame as an unfair process, but it was fueled by the same rage I always saw in my own abuser’s eyes, triggered any time I began to resist.
The rage exhibited by members of the committee and by Kavanaugh himself was not about fairness. It was about having their dominance— their place on the alpha male pecking order of the man box — challenged. This performance of rage resonates deeply with men who support Kavanaugh. For them, it is the confirmation of men’s hard-earned right to dominate others they view as being beneath them, women, and marginalized people.
The self-righteous performance of rage we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings should always be seen for what it is…. It is the marker of an abuser who feels their authority being challenged.
Though our culture will not permit a public admission of this, for the few men at the top of the pyramid of abuse and power, an accusation of sexual abuse, of rape, is not grounds for dismissal; it is confirmation of their status. It is proof of their power. It is the reason they are to be feared and respected.
The performance of rage we have seen in the Kavanaugh hearings goes beyond simple anger or frustration. It included very literal warnings of more punitive actions to come. “You won’t like me when I’m mad.” Something new is emerging here. The rageful tactics of abusers are coming out of the shadows and being integrated into political messaging. Rage in politics should always be seen for what it is, as should the smirking, eye-rolling, and dismissing of others that often accompanies it. It is the mark of abusers when their authority is being challenged. In public, they are intent on silencing civil public discourses. In the privacy of bedrooms and hidden places, they are signaling the physical assault that almost always comes next.
After Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) exploded angrily during the hearings, many voices affirmed his expression of rage as being powerful leadership and fully justified. In a very calculated way, Graham and Kavanaugh used displays of anger and contempt to overwhelm the news cycle, pulling focus from testimony and questions delivered by calmer more civil voices in the room. Additionally, they are seeding a narrative, by which those confronted with women’s stories of abuse, are the victims of a “mob” even as they undermine those women, our social and political institutions and our efforts to legislate equality. When this victimhood narrative is seeded intentionally by presidents and supreme court nominees, we have stepped into a whole new level of disruption and manipulation. Reliance on tactics like these are rooted in a culture of manhood that trains us to respect the anger and violence as the final arbiters of authority for American men. Coupled with an Orwellian double speak whereby those who support white supremacist violence in the streets are the victims of a “mob”, it becomes a toxic political mixture. Meanwhile, at the most basic level, the bullies on the playground continue to tell the rest of us what to do. “Sorry but this is how it works.”
“No, it is not.”
Millions are rising up against the epidemic of abuse and violence in our society. Alongside women, good, decent men are working to end our abusive man box culture based on the following simple truths: Men do not want to be angry. Men do not want to be alone. Men are not naturally inclined toward the toxic confines of the man box. If we were, it wouldn’t be killing us.
We are at a crucial moment in American history. As the stakes get raised higher and higher, we must call out abusers and eliminate the blunt and bloody man box mechanisms by which they maintain power.