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Column: Whatever Happens, We Know This Much Is True



For the Chicago Tribune
Friday, October 05, 2018

As I write this, Brett Kavanaugh appears closer to taking a seat on the United States Supreme Court.

Whether or not he does, people will continue to debate whether he assaulted a teenage girl when they were both in high school, whether as a young man he was an aggressive drunk and whether, in pursuit of a job dedicated to justice, he lied under oath about both.

The political maneuvering and rancor will go on, the invective hurled like stink bombs.

But in the fog and noise, for those who let themselves look and listen, at least one clear truth will emerge from this ugly moment: We’re only beginning to comprehend the magnitude of sexual violence and predation in this country. We’re still in the early phases of naming it for what it is and acknowledging it as one of our great national shames.

It’s a fluke of the calendar that the vote on Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court coincides with what’s being hailed as the first anniversary of the #MeToo movement.

A fluke, but not unrelated.

In the year since #MeToo was popularized in reaction to the sexual abuse allegations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, thousands of women, along with many men, have come forward with their own stories.

With each public revelation of a famous man preying on women, more stories spill out about us regular people. Just when you might think that any woman with a story to tell had already told it, it turns out there’s more.

So much more, as the Kavanaugh drama has shown.

Like a lot of women in the past few days, I’ve had conversations with friends and relatives in which we’ve told each other things that have happened to us — bad things at the hands of men — that we’d never confided before.

The reasons we hadn’t done so sooner varied: Some things are private. We’d “moved on.” The opportunity had never come up. In the era before the terms “date rape,” “consent” and “sexual harassment” were in vogue, we didn’t have the vocabulary for what had happened. Etc.

Meanwhile, I’ve received many emails from Chicago Tribune readers recounting their own stories, memories stirred up by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychologist who says Kavanaugh assaulted her in high school. The incidents range from the crudely aggressive to the conspicuously violent.

Here’s one email excerpt:

“I can vividly remember how he smelled, how it felt to feel hopeless, my 110 lbs. helplessly pinned down by someone twice my size. And I only told my best friend about it this week.”

Here’s another:

“You think once you are older (in your 60s), this type of abuse stops. It doesn’t. A few years after my husband died, I dated a man my age. ... We went out twice and on the second date he exposed himself to me with these words, ‘Come on, don’t you want this.’ I’m sure the behavior ... was something he had done all his life and continues to do.”

And another, from a woman who said she endured incest as a child and two sexual assaults as an adult:

“This week was horrible for me. Last night was the worst, as I felt my ribs get broken again, my cheekbone fractured, knowing that I will remember forever what could have happened instead of what did actually happen and that I survived.”

I happen to believe Christine Blasey Ford, but even if you don’t believe her, it’s important to listen to the stories her story has unleashed. Listen when women talk of how they’ve been assaulted or threatened. Listen to why they may not have reported it.

Listen when they say that the vulgarity and mockery with which their claims are treated is its own assault.

Listen to how long the trauma of those moments may last. I say “may” because not everyone carries the weight of a sexual assault in the same way.

Listen for how no two stories are exactly the same.

But wait, you may be thinking. What about the men who are falsely accused of sexual violence and harassment? What about women who prey on women or men?

Those sometimes happen, and they’re awful when they do. But false accusations against men aren’t the deep, rampant sickness in our society. Neither is violence perpetrated by women.

The profound problem is sexual predation, primarily by men, in its many forms.

Here’s another email I recently received, from a woman, mother of four sons, who said that after listening to the assault allegations against Kavanaugh she’d had “quite a discussion” with her husband.

“My husband ... said this couldn’t happen. After much discussion I told him I knew of at least six women who had something like this happen to them. One of them is my sister. I told him I wouldn’t be surprised if every women knows at least five women who had something like this happen to her.”

I trust he listened. Many men do. I know quite a few. I’ve received email from a lot of them. It’s encouraging, but it’s not enough.

And that’s the truth.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.