I think I needed a little breathing time before writing about this issue without succumbing to rage. Happily, I’ve had the chance to rant in private to several friends, and am now prepared to remark with cool objectivity that right-wingers seem to be notably inconsistent when they comment on topics related to sexual assault.
Item one: Donald Trump. When it was initially revealed that he had bragged about assaulting women, and we expressed horror, a number of men of my acquaintance said it was just locker room talk, that women were over-reacting, that plenty of men would say the same, and even that his boast just showed that he was a “real man.”
Item two: Bill Clinton. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal was all over the news, I was personally disgusted with the president and argued, with many others, that a man who lacked integrity in his private life could not be trusted as a leader. Conservatives said so, too. But as they denounced him they also mocking Lewinsky, with repeated jokes about cigars and stained dresses, and comments on her lips. Fast forward a few years and, behold, these same conservatives who once mocked one of Clinton’s victims now denounce Hillary Clinton for also mocking his victims – in spite of the fact that her position as his wife meant that objectivity would be almost impossible. How many women do you know who speak warmly about their husbands lovers? And yes, at the time, we saw the triangle a little differently: young, slutty, ditzy girl preferred by sleazy older man to his frigid power-hungry wife. That was the narrative. Later on we began to view things more accurately, so that Bill Clinton emerged not as a good-timing man, but as an actual sexual predator. It was feminists who helped me to see this in a new light – the same feminists who stood up to Donald Trump, while the same men who defended him kept on “whatabouting” Clinton.
Which leads me to –
Item three: the Woman’s March. The March may have ended up incorporating a number of different goals and themes, but the initial impetus was rage at the indifference of the Right to the reality of sexual assault, the trauma that women have gone through. Women spoke up about their own experience of assault and were derided as emotional and hysterical. So what else is new? The Woman’s March was mocked by right wing columnists as “having no particular goal” (because objecting to having a predator in office is clearly too amorphous and vague to be counted as a real goal?). Many wrongly re-cast it as a pro-abortion march, because when a woman says “it’s my body” or “it’s my choice” there are many who can’t hear this without immediately thinking “abortion” – as though there weren’t a vast sphere of activity in which women possess bodily autonomy and are entitled to defend it. People clutched their pearls over the pink “pussy hats” which look like nothing more scandalous than cat ears: “how can these vile women go around with vaginas on their heads? SHOCKING!” As though wearing a hat that carries a twice-removed symbolic reference to female genitalia is somehow worse than actually groping said genitalia.
Now contrast this with:
Item four: The clerical abuse scandals that continue to rock the Catholic Church. For one brief shining moment it seemed a lot of us were united in our horror and sorrow, in our desire for justice for the perpetrators and healing for the victims. But very quickly it became clear that right-wing Catholics were obsessing over this as fundamentally a problem with gay men. In order to end assault, they argued, we need to clean out the seminaries, kick out the gays. And ultimately, once the Vigano letter came out, the animosity was specifically focused on Pope Francis – even though the bulk of the assaults and predations happened under the rule of John Paul and Benedict.And this then coincided with:
Item five: The Kavanaugh hearings. In which men and women who had thrown up their hands and denounced Bill Clinton as a serial predator, and castigated his wife for refusing to believe Clinton’s accusers, proceeded not to believe Kavanaugh’s accusers. In which a demographic that has repeatedly called out feminists for their support of Clinton (and yes, this was a white feminist fail, back in the 90s) threw themselves spiritedly into a defense of Kavanaugh as one of their own. “What man hasn’t done such things?” they asked (not to my face, or I would have backed slowly away and prepared some martial arts moves). “It makes him more natural, more likable” they said (unintentionally arguing that men in general are unfit to hold any position of power). “It was just a youthful indiscretion” they said (while now chastising Elizabeth Warren for the youthful indiscretion of checking off the “native American” box – but this is a whole other dimension of hypocrisy). “They’re just opposing him because of politics, because he’s pro-life” (he isn’t) – which, again, shows that people are completely clueless about the fact that yes, women do take rather seriously the principle that we should not be assaulted.
We think that when a woman endures the trauma associated with speaking out, in order to prevent a potential predator from entering into a position of power, she at least deserves a respectful listen. Is this political? Yes, insofar as politics has to do with justice and the common good. It doesn’t mean “automatically believe all women, without asking questions” – but it does mean we should listen, respect, evaluate – and remember the statistics. Only 2-6% of rape charges are determined to be false; the rates of false accusations of assault are not higher than those of other crimes; only 40% of rapes are even reported; one in five of all women in the United States will be raped at some point in her life;one in three women and one in six men in the United States will experience some kind of sexual violence in their lifetime.
Women, and not only liberal or leftist feminists, take assault seriously. It is not a minor or negligible issue. Ignoring it or dismissing it sends women the message that we don’t matter, that our bodies don’t matter.
And that is the message that right-wingers have sent us, in previous months. It is clear that they will pretend to be appalled by assault only when it suits their agenda – whether to chase out gay men, depose the pope, or advance the capitalist regime the GOP seeks ruthlessly to advance.
I won’t deny that many, individually, care when the victim is dear to them. But ideologically, a right wing political faction is dedicated to maintaining power structures, which means maintaining the patriarchal power structures in which assault is minimized or blamed on the women. And as our existing right wing faction has become more obsessed with power and indifferent to principles, this solidifies their indifference. Unless they can use it to their advantage, they do not care.
And this not-caring means the ideology will continue to attract those who, individually, do not care. Perhaps because they are predators themselves, or resent women – incels, or MRAs. Or perhaps because they are afraid of the outcome if we begin dismantling a system that has given predatory men – white men, at least – a pass, over and over again.
Whatever the reason, we see it. And we will remember.