Mara Keire was 16 when, she says, she was raped in a car outside a party in 1984. Her assailant was a rising senior at an Ivy League university and a sailing champion, living the life Keire—then about to start her senior year in high school—saw for herself a few years down the line. Keire remembers she “found his attention flattering” and went along when, after she’d had several drinks at his urging, the college guy led her into the back seat of his friend’s car.
“It soon became clear that where I wanted to make out, he wanted to fuck me,” Keire said. “I was a virgin, and I told him so. Didn’t make any difference.” They struggled. Two boys opened the car door to find them naked, then backed away laughing. At that moment, Keire remembers, she felt even more helplessly trapped. “I felt I couldn’t go back into the house without further and immediate humiliation,” she said. “The rapist and I were both fully naked. Everyone would know we hadn’t just made out.” Keire’s rapist merely took off the condom he was using and picked back up where he’d left off.
That feeling of terror came back to Keire these past few weeks, much more forcefully than it did in the wave of #MeToo revelations and deeply urgent female storytelling that followed two investigations into Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of sexual violence, published a year ago this week. “#MeToo mostly had me reconsidering harassment and discrimination on the job,” Keire said, as well as the structures that keep abusive men in power. But news coverage of the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh has felt entirely different for Keire, now a 51-year-old historian at Oxford University. She suffered PTSD-like flashbacks during accuser Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee and pored over an old photo of the “misogynistic louts” she says populated Kavanaugh’s fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, when she attended Yale University just two years behind him. More so than the height of the #MeToo movement last fall and winter, the Kavanaugh hearings have prompted Keire to relive the social scene and accompanying sexual violations of her high school and college years. “It made me reconsider the whole infrastructure of people, for lack of a better word, that enabled my rapist to rape me,” she said. “It was like I telescoped out from the rape itself to reanalyze the whole social setting—which was not too different from the one Ford and Kavanaugh partied in.”
Across the country, women like Keire have been shuttled back to sites of decades-old trauma by the stories of drunken parties and sexual exploitation Ford, Kavanaugh, and their contemporaries have told. It feels a bit like this time last year, when the #MeToo movement caused many to revisit encounters from their past, reclassify near-forgotten boundary violations as harassment, and rethink the margins of appropriate conduct in the workplace, the classroom, and public spaces. Back then, each recollection joined a stream of others on social media, coalescing over weeks and months into a torrent of hurt and anger. To witness one’s private, unspoken experiences mirrored and repeated by so many others revealed an unobstructed view of the churning gears of patriarchal subjugation for the very first time.
But there were others out there, onlookers who supported the #MeToo movement but didn’t quite see themselves reflected so clearly in its stories or its aims. For one thing, #MeToo ramped up around instances of workplace harassment—infractions thankfully foreign to plenty of women, and ones that an entire training industry and class of law have been marshaled to prevent and prosecute. Then there was the most prominent effect of the #MeToo movement, the exposure and ouster of famous powerful men who’d abused underlings in their respective industries: an important objective, but not a highly personal one to the millions of women who don’t work for Harvey Weinstein types. The prevailing cultural debate that surrounded #MeToo wasn’t so much about how best to prevent sexual harassment and assault as it was about whether certain acts—questionably criminal, sort of creepy, definitely unwanted—belonged under the #MeToo umbrella, and thus whether they deserved any sustained scrutiny at all.
Ford, and Kavanaugh’s other accusers, by contrast, have made space to talk about the pitfalls of an entire culture of toxic masculinity and sexual misbehavior, one in which most American women have found themselves at some point in their lives, whether or not any single manifestation rises to the level of a sex crime. The overarching themes of the Kavanaugh allegations—beer-fueled high school antics, college men bonding over the sexual humiliation of a woman, white upper-class boys behaving badly—are more familiar to the average American woman than the #MeToo movement’s biggest stories, which involved sustained targeted abuse within the context of specific industries. And while the insistent, unexpected rise of #MeToo and its spate of high-profile male departures might have suggested that America was finally ready to hold sexual abusers to account, Kavanaugh has proved that little has changed. Indeed, not only will the boys who laughed as they sexually terrorized their female peers never face consequences for their behavior. They will also end up running the country.
So Kavanaugh’s likely confirmation is primed to incite both hotter rage and a deeper sort of personal reckoning than the #MeToo moment did. In interviews and over email, several women told me they see themselves in Ford, often much more vividly than they could relate to the women at the forefront of #MeToo: Ford’s “indelible” memory of Kavanaugh and Judge laughing during their assault made one woman think of the sight, mid-rape, of her own folded clothes next to her on the bed. The “indelible in the hippocampus” line in Ford’s testimony reminded Lucy Hamer, 30, of the distinctive plop sound her assailant’s ejaculate made on her shoe—10 years after he’d forced her into her apartment building’s lobby, pinned her against a wall, and masturbated. Women I spoke to saw equally clear likenesses of their abusers in Kavanaugh. One woman said the rage Kavanaugh exhibited in his testimony “was too much like my rapist’s angry voicemail six months later, calling me a liar.” Meaghan O’Malley, 39, was taken back to her early teens, when she confronted a popular athletic neighbor about the time he’d forced a mutual female friend to touch his erect penis. “He denied any wrongdoing,” she said. “He got red-faced, yelled at me, told me to keep my mouth shut and fuck off.” Kavanaugh’s self-exonerating fury and baldfaced lies were, for these women and many others, very familiar.
That familiarity makes him a perfect avatar for the aggressive, entitled maleness Kavanaugh’s supporters are fighting to prop up—the very quality women associate with the boys and men who tormented them in their youths, even as they contorted themselves to please those boys. Rebekah Berndt, a 40-year-old critical care nurse, told me that the Kavanaugh hearings caused her to reckon with the pressure she once felt to be a “cool girl,” one who “didn’t mind being catcalled and ogled, who was always sexually open, liked to tell dirty jokes, and could hang with the boys.” She drank to mask the shame she felt, to better perform a role that didn’t come easily to her, and to muffle the instinct that told her the boys’ behavior was wrong. To Berndt, the Kavanaugh hearings represent the “next phase” of the #MeToo movement’s invitation to share stories of sexual violations: “a deepening,” she said, “where women begin to examine the relationships we’ve had with our male friends and classmates, and the behavior we’ve often turned a blind eye to in order to feel like we belong.”
The way conservatives have mobilized to discredit and shame Ford has touched an especially sensitive nerve. In the words of Donald Trump (“If the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed”), women hear their internal narratives of doubt and self-blame. In the lines of questioning pursued by prosecutor Rachel Mitchell and the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee (Why can’t Ford remember how she got home from the gathering where Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her? Who paid for her polygraph test?), women hear the parents, friends, and school officials who dismissed their pain or assumed they were stretching the truth. Hamer was thinking of her assailant as she watched Ford testify. “And that’s when it hit me—like, holy shit, I don’t even remember this guy’s name,” she said. Even though the stranger who’d pinned her in the apartment building lobby had told her his name, she would never be able to identify him by it.
Women who spoke to me echoed Hamer, saying that the responses to Ford forced them to envision the campaigns that would be waged against them if they ever came out against their abusers. A 33-year-old comedy writer named Briana* told me that when she was 19 or 20, she went out for drinks with the older male ex-roommate of a woman she’d dated. He bought her drink after drink, she blacked out, and he took her to his house and raped her. “If, for whatever reason, my rapist decided to run for the Senate tomorrow, I would have the same gaps in memory [as Ford], and a lack of corroboration,” she said. “The bar we went to shut down years ago. It wouldn’t stand a chance against any scrutiny 13 years later.” The GOP’s laser focus on the things Ford couldn’t remember from that night 36 years ago provided Briana with a jarring reminder of the peripheral moments from a night lost to time, alcohol, and a desire to forget.
The spectacle of a woman being forced to dig up details from the most traumatic event of her life in front of millions of people predisposed to disbelieve her—and believe her accused assailant instead—has sent Kelsey, a 29-year-old who works for an engineering and construction company, into a spiral of picturing herself before a tribunal. “Now I imagine, if this was me on trial, what he would say, what I would have to say, and how the world would perceive it,” she said. “I saw who my defenders would be, and I saw who would try to discredit me.” Another woman, a 40-year-old-writer, has been unable to stop thinking about the time in eighth or ninth grade when a “really sleazy guy” pressured her into performing oral sex on him. She’s never considered it an assault because she technically consented—“but it was a violation, it was cruel, it was aggressive coercion, and what would I do if that guy was nominated to the Supreme Court?” she’s been wondering. “Would I say anything? Would what happened count?”
Briana sees another important difference between the #MeToo movement, which allows supporters to take a stand against whatever any one person deemed to be sexual harassment and assault, and the Kavanaugh allegations, which are particular stories about a particular man seeking a particular position of power. “We’re not just asking, ‘Is he a criminal or not a criminal’—we’re asking if a man who is capable of doing this should be responsible for shaping our laws,” Briana said. The Supreme Court seat Kavanaugh has so angrily claimed America owes him stands in for all the accomplishments and opportunities women have watched the entitled boys in their lives, now entitled men, take as their right.
The long-term effect of the Kavanaugh fight is likely to be far more political than that of #MeToo, too. Though traditionally “liberal” in its goals and shunned by conservatives, #MeToo was essentially nonpartisan; its first offender, Weinstein, was a prominent Democratic fundraiser, and the movement has identified and censured plenty of non-politicians as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But the Kavanaugh nomination has revealed one party as far more motivated to punish and deter sexual exploitation than the other. The Republican right, in its vehement defense of Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior and equally vehement contention that he couldn’t have perpetrated it, against any and all corroborating evidence, is refusing to confront sexual violence as a moral issue. Instead, in their repeated calls for due process and a presumption of innocence—and in the scolding Sen. Lindsey Graham gave a rape survivor protesting Kavanaugh (“You should have told the cops,” he said)—Republicans have used Kavanaugh’s nomination as a new front for their fight to constrain responses to sexual assault to the very criminal justice system that has proved incapable of holding rapists accountable for their crimes. Women are unlikely to forget that.
Both the reckoning that came with #MeToo and the one Kavanaugh has provoked feel like essential steps in understanding the breadth and diversity of sexual violations women tote around, usually in silence, their entire lives. And yet somehow, for the women I spoke to, they’ve left completely different emotional wakes. One was a moment of coming together, of empowerment, of strength in numbers; the other was a raw show of male power that resurfaced a painfully recognizable high school milieu that, as the Kavanaugh hearings demonstrated, never really dissipates. “#MeToo made me feel safe, validated, and heard,” Lynn*, a 26-year-old software developer, told me, describing several instances of sexual harassment, assault, and coercion from her college years. “This bullshit brings back all of the anxiety, fear, and trauma of not only what happened, but my fears of not being believed—of shame, guilt, hurt, pain, everything.” The year Lynn was born, Anita Hill testified that then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Lynn has recently been revisiting that case, digesting the morbid symmetry between Hill, who was insulted to her face by the senators who questioned her, and Ford, who was treated with perfunctory respect—but who, it seems, will be neither respected nor believed enough to derail a drunken teenager’s path to power. “I’ve always been angry,” Lynn said. “But now I’m fucking furious.”
*Briana and Lynn are pseudonyms. We are not using their real names at their request.
If you are struggling to process a memory of sexual violence, you can reach out for help by phone to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network at 1-800-656-4673 or over text message to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 (on almost all carriers, these texts are free).