Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing—and the controversy surrounding it—has played incessantly on news media outlets for a couple of weeks now. But of course, the coverage has not centered primarily on the judge’s achievements or professional life; rather, reporters have focused on accusations of sexual misconduct in his high school and college years.
Three women have raised their hands with complaints: Julie Swetnick with charges of sexual misconduct during parties from boys at their high school (including Kavanaugh); Deborah Ramirez that he forcibly exposed himself to her during a drunken game at Yale; and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who just testified before the Senate with a more serious charge of attempted gang rape during high school. None of the accusers have outspoken witnesses; none reported the charges at the time of the events; none pursued their cases in court before Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment became a headline.
As Christians, the discussion can be confusing, as we’re admonished to pick a side. “Who do you believe?” we’re asked. Political motivations, “innocent until proven guilty,” polygraph tests, the failures of memory, notes from therapy sessions—the circus of opinion disorients us.
The event becomes a trial, a chance to pick between who’s right and who’s wrong, an opportunity to stand up for the Truth with a capital T. In actuality, lives lie in ruins before us with dashed achievements, and reputations slammed, and families threatened.
The outstanding claim, whatever your stance, is why would Kavanaugh’s accusers step forward now? And though there has been much written to justify the delay of an assaulted woman sharing her story, I wonder if the debate actually becomes clearer from close up, from the eyes of the accused and accusers themselves—or if the truth remains as opaque in their homes as it is through our screens.
I can relate to that personal confusion inherent in unmuddling the truth of an unwanted sexual advance. A year ago, I listed my wedding dress for sale on Craigslist. I assumed the listing would languish, though I felt determined to raise the money so that I could buy a plane ticket to visit a friend across the country—which is probably why I responded to Lisa Marqee’s first email at all.
“Hi,” she wrote, “...I love that dress but I do not have enough cash right now so I was wondering if you would be interested in a trade?” she wrote. She offered me a mix of cash and some leftovers from a stash from a former business venture: “I use to sell adult toys online for a few yrs and now I have a lot of product leftover from that. Let me know your thoughts : ) Lisa.” [sic]
I had never heard a Craigslist buyer mention sex in any context, even politely, even with euphemisms. Of course the warning signs were obvious, like I imagine they were for the case of Kavanaugh’s accusers: attending a party as a young teen with no parents around and drinking beer with teenage boys? Playing a co-ed dormitory drinking game with dildos nearby? Red flags abounded.
But I am used to being the prude. I grew up in the Christian purity culture of the nineties and 2000s, where I was taught that “boys will be boys,” that purity was my responsibility and not theirs, that I could not trust my own instincts about sex. And I have always been the good youth group girl—the first man I kissed ended up being my husband, and I lost my virginity on my wedding night.
So, when Lisa emailed, nearly seven years into my marriage, the same old reel started in my head as I often experienced in my chaste days: “I’m a prude, that’s why her mentioning sex toys bothers me—it’s just me being weird, not her.”
I ignored the email, but an hour later, I had received two more emails from Lisa asking about the dress, confirming the same offer, asking to stop by that very weekend if the dress was still available. Her persistence paid off and I emailed back with my phone number so we could set up a meeting time. And then came an email back from Lisa negotiating the terms, asking me to describe the toys I wanted. I emailed back: “My tastes are tame—I’ll just take the cash.” Then came photos of vibrators, the descriptions of Viagra for women, a fake torso with an erect silicon penis. Through clenched teeth, I write her once last email to tell her I’m not interested in those. She sends me a quick response back with—you guessed it—dick pics attached.
I immediately deleted the emails. I reported the interaction to Craigslist. Then I wept and beat the shit out of myself on the inside—how could I have let this happen? Who falls for that? Later, I asked my husband, “Why didn’t I see it?” But the truth is, I had seen it, and I had looked away, not trusting my gut to tell me the truth. And I had allowed a predator to walk through my front door without noticing. Though I hadn’t asked for it, though I hadn’t wanted it, it had happened to me.
I wonder if Kavanaugh’s accusers felt the same self-doubt, the same confusion and shame as I did, though the circumstances of their experiences were drastically different than mine. Whatever happened to them, whoever was the true guilty party, sexual assault victims are known to struggle to make sense of what they experienced. Feelings of shame, self-blaming, denial, minimizing, and fear of the consequences of reporting an assault are known responses in victims; after all, how do you make sense of an experience where someone strips away your dignity?
Bystanders will also struggle to understand the physical and psychological cost both to victims and accused perpetrators, as we have seen on twitter, in newsrooms, and on the Senate floor. Without hidden cameras and forthright witnesses, any case of sexual misconduct can languish in uncertainty without the sort of evidence courts usually use to convict criminals.
But let us not, as Christians, be callused to the complexity of assault in the lives of its victims and perpetrators, falling into the trap of name-calling and one-dimensional explanations. As some Christians have asserted, these women’s accusations are not only political; they are not untrue just because these women didn’t scream loudly enough; and their accusations are not irrelevant—not when we consider the need for a man or woman of sterling character on the Supreme Court.
As Christians, we must instead fight for justice—justice for the sake of victims and perpetrators alike—remembering that the gospel’s idea of justice is the god-man Jesus nailed to a cross. And we must pray for justice, no matter who topples in its wake.