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Why Caitlin Flanagan’s Powerful Essay on Teen Sexual Assault Appeals to #MeToo Skeptics

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Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic piece, “I Believe Her,” is a personal essay about her own teenage sexual assault that doubles as an argument to reconsider Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It’s proved convincing, even to the kind of centrist thinkers who might be otherwise skeptical about #MeToo “overreach.” The essay is gorgeous and forceful, in that Flanagan way. But the fact that this is the #MeToo testimony that moves people who wouldn’t otherwise be moved seems at once revealing and depressing.

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The best, and most clarifying, paragraph in Flanagan’s piece explains why she told nobody about the incident when it first happened. This attempted rape took place on Long Island in 1978, at a time when Flanagan was a recent transplant from Berkeley, California, and longed to make friends. A socially desirable boy offered her a ride home, then lunged at her. Flanagan writes: “His attempt was so serious—and he was so powerful—that for a few minutes, I was truly fighting him off.” But she keeps it secret.

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In my mind, it was an example of how undesirable I was. It was proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties, or the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.

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The dynamics Flanagan describes in this paragraph were immediately recognizable to many readers, who quoted these lines in their tweets. Sexual assault happens in adolescence—just as it does in adulthood—in the context of a social situation where power isn’t equally distributed. This is why the fact that young Brett Kavanaugh was kind to his two girlfriends named Maura, or that he could now marshal 65 women to speak to his reputation, means nothing at all. A boy, like a man, can easily compartmentalize: He can be kind to the girls who have social power (parental wealth, popularity, whiteness, able-bodied-ness) while targeting others for less tender treatment. It’s funny that conservatives, so attentive to the dynamics of hierarchy in other situations, do not factor this possible asymmetry into their analysis of men’s character; it also makes it much easier for them to defend the accused.

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Flanagan’s essay resonates because it compellingly shows how much damage this assault did to her own self-image. But this wasn’t the end of the story. The essay appeals to people who might not otherwise be #MeToo allies both because it’s narratively satisfying and because it contains a few righteous men to counterbalance the bad one. The attempted rape is a dark low for teenage Flanagan, but things look up when another boy asks her out. She takes a chance and drives to the beach with him and a bottle of wine. “By the time he drove me back home, I felt rescued,” she writes. In many ways, by that point in the story, she has indeed been rescued—she is now in the same social circles as her would-be rapist, happily fitting in at high school, thanks in large part to her new boyfriend, who is one of the good ones.

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Male readers can see themselves in this boyfriend. Or else they hope that they might do what the assailant did, and apologize. The note that the transgressor wrote in Flanagan’s yearbook is articulate and moving; he apologized to her not only in writing, but also again in person. This is a story of redemption, and although the harm he did was real—“I had nearly killed myself as a response to what he apologized for in my yearbook,” Flanagan writes—the resolution is satisfying. Flanagan eventually gets past her depression and moves on from the “small, obscure liberal-arts college” she’s first relegated to before transferring to “a great university.” And then Flanagan gets the satisfaction of forgiveness.

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Everybody in this story has won; the attempted rape gets smoothed over, as if it were not a bodily assault but rather an unfortunate breach of etiquette. Would the boy have acted so righteously if Flanagan had continued as an outsider, not been absorbed into his social group and given new status and confidence through her relationship with her boyfriend—if she had not become a person in his eyes?

It’s easy to see why this narrative would be palatable to people who find #MeToo frightening. Flanagan pinpoints a structural social issue around dating—the idea that whatever happens is the woman’s fault—that was still dominant in the ’70s, even as second-wave feminism began to fight it. Even then, the story argues, most men were good men of conscience (she immediately finds a nice boyfriend). And even those who behaved badly could find forgiveness through taking personal responsibility in the form of an apology.

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One ironic twist: It seems likely that the empathy and understanding that centrist or right-leaning readers of Flanagan’s essay are willing to extend to her come in part from her own current status in the intellectual sphere. Like the men who have deployed the “as a father of daughters” defense as evidence of their own empathy for women, those freshly convinced by Flanagan seem to believe her because they deem her one of them. The essay means something to somebody like David Brooks, where thousands of #MeToo tweets and essays apparently failed to make a dent, because of who Flanagan is: the kind of writer who publishes cautionary pieces about “female rage” being poised to destroy #MeToo and confused defenses of Jordan Peterson. Flanagan is at all the same parties, at least figuratively speaking, and so she gets the benefit of the doubt. #MeToo is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and surely we need all the testimony we can get. Flanagan’s piece is powerful and elegantly written. But it’s still telling that this is the one to move the needle.

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