by Elizabeth Barnes, PhD student
Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s brave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee astonished the world, but her allegations were greeted with hostility by men in positions of power – a response which has deep roots in the history of sexual violence and social reform in the US.
In October 2017, in just 24 hours, 4.7 million people engaged with #MeToo on Twitter, recounting personal stories of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse. The movement arose in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein; the phrase was coined by Tarana Burke in 2006, and popularised in 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano. Within 24 hours of #MeToo appearing, high-profile men, within the entertainment industry and beyond, began to lose their jobs and reputations. Women and men who had been silenced for years found themselves being listened to and believed.
It did not take long, however, for the anticipated backlash to begin. We have recently seen the culmination of that backlash unfold in the US Senate, but this is certainly not the first time that a cultural movement seeking increased protection for women against sexual violence has encouraged such a response from powerful men. Those who rushed to the defence of Brett Kavanaugh (accused of sexual abuse and misconduct by multiple women) appealed to deep-seated, historical anxieties about sexual crimes, women, and deceit.
The incredible successes of the age of consent movement in the US, for example, were soon challenged in the media and the courtroom in similar terms to the criticisms of #MeToo. This movement saw the age at which young women could consent to sexual relations increase to at least 16 in all states but one by 1920. The headlines from a 1919 edition of the Journal of Urology and Sexology, however, are all too similar to those we see plastered across current tabloids: ‘Giving Bit of Sugar to Young Girl Leads to Accusation of Innocent Man’; ‘Lying Child Found Out by Trick’; and, simply, ‘Characteristic Example of Female Revenge.’
These headlines and related stories were published together under the heading ‘Miscellaneous Cases of Rape.’ All of the collected stories involved girls and women making false allegations, deceiving authorities, and using accusations of rape to exert power over men. A recent Wall Street Journal piece (which essentially claimed that Dr Blasey Ford has falsified her allegations out of partisan interest) would not look out of place amongst these stories from a century ago, proclaiming her actions as ‘The #MeToo Kavanaugh Ambush’.
The implication that Dr Blasey Ford was fabricating her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh was voiced again during the senate hearing. Rachel Mitchell, questioning Blasey Ford on behalf of Republican senators, asked why she had taken a polygraph, on whose advice, and with whose funding. Mitchell also queried who had recommended Dr Blasey Ford’s counsel, and who was paying them. These lines of questioning play into the belief that women falsify allegations, either for their own gain or as pawns of others.
Similar thinking was also expressed during and after the campaigns for age of consent reform. The backlash hit not just girls, but all women, who had suddenly become much more capable of securing convictions against predatory men. One Supreme Court justice in 1892 remarked that rape allegations were ‘easily simulated,’ and that women’s testimony must be regarded with ‘suspicion.’
Much like today, women as well as men sometimes endorsed these misogynistic narratives about sexual assault: girls ‘can get boys or men in trouble this way [and] then they laugh about it,’ remarked one mother in the 1930s, whose son had been jailed for statutory rape. During the senate hearing, Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith defended Kavanaugh, stating that ‘opponents of Judge Kavanaugh are engaged in character assassination to destroy the reputation of a devoted public servant.’
It is never quite clear, however, what precisely individual women have to gain from falsifying allegations. What is very clear – but generally ignored – is exactly how much they stand to lose.
With all the progress that the #MeToo movement has made, attention remains on the behaviour of individual men, rather than the institutions that protect them. Ideas about sexuality and sexual violence that pervade US culture remain largely unchallenged and unchanged. In the immediate aftermath of the Weinstein allegations, men in power across the US were stating that ‘as a father’ or ‘as a husband’, they were horrified by the stories unfolding. Their concerns for women’s safety were still defined by their own (apparently paternalistic) relationship to women.
That narrative has now shifted, however. No longer are Republican men expressing the desire to defend and protect women from predatory men, but rather circling the wagons against accusations that may fall at their own door. ‘If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this,’ a White House Lawyer stated shortly after Dr Blasey Ford’s allegations were made public, ‘then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.’ Like their conservative predecessors, Kavanaugh’s defenders believe that sexual assault is a problem, but a rare one, frequently fabricated, and less important than the standing of reputable men.
 Hal Goldman, ‘”A Most Detestable Crime”: Character, Consent, and Corroboration in Vermont’s Rape Law, 1850-1920,’ in Merril D Smith (eds.), Sex Without Consent: Rape and Sexual Coercion in America (New York, 2001), 178-203, 193
 Estelle B. Freedman, Redefining Rape (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 165.
Comparison to the rape case in South Africa comes to mind where the defense lawyer referred to the alleged rape victim as a ‘good actress’ and asked how many centimeters she was penetrated by the defendent at age 14. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-45940338
Brilliant reflection on then and now. Thank you so much for this insightful piece.