Identity

What Brett Kavanaugh Got Wrong About Sexual Assault and Virginity

Experts on sexual violence say Kavanaugh revealed a deep misunderstanding of sexual assault when he brought up virginity during a Fox News interview.
September 25, 2018, 8:42pm
Win McNamee for Getty Images.

On Monday night, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh gave an interview on Fox News, addressing the now-multiple sexual assault allegations against him, stemming from encounters women said they had with him in high school and college.

As part of his staunch denial that the events his accusers Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez allege never occurred, Kavanaugh offered what he saw as a credible alibi: Sitting beside his wife, Kavanaugh told Fox News' Martha MacCallum that he'd been a virgin in high school, college, and for some time after.

"I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone," Kavanaugh said. "I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years there after."

"And through what years in college since we’re probing into your personally life here?" MacCallum pressed.

"Many years after," Kavanaugh said. "I’ll leave it at that. Many years after."

Advocates for survivors of sexual assault say they're troubled by this response from Kavanaugh because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual assault, how it can manifest, and who is capable of committing it.

"There’s no prerequisite of sexual experience for someone to be capable of having committed sexual violence," Sarah Nesbitt, the policy and advocacy organizer at Know Your Title IX, tells Broadly. "And then there's this idea that sexual violence is only defined by forcible penetrative sex. We know that sexual assault doesn't only take one form."

"From his statements, it seems like he has a very narrow understanding of what assault actually is," Nora Gelperin, the director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth, added. "There are legal definitions that include forcible penetration at one end of the continuum, but many others violations of bodily autonomy that would meet the legal definition as well."

Ford, who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, has alleged that Kavanaugh physically restrained her and attempted to force himself on her during a high school party when he was 17. Ramirez says Kavanaugh exposed his penis to her at a Yale University dorm party in the 1980s, and placed it in front of her face as other partygoers encouraged her to "kiss it." Neither of these alleged scenarios, both Nesbitt and Gelperin emphasize, has anything to do with virginity.

"Virginity and the discussion and debate of his alleged virginity is a distraction," Nesbitt says—but adds that it may be a calculated one. Kavanaugh has been trying to build a defense for himself that makes him seem like an unlikely perpetrator of sexual assault, she says, relying on character witnesses and details of the wholesome Christian life he says he led as an adolescent and young adult.

On the other end, some of Kavanaugh's defenders have tried to undermine his accusers' credibility by painting them as leading more morally dubious lifestyles. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump questioned Ramirez's account, saying she "has nothing" on Kavanaugh because she "admits she was drunk" at the party where the alleged incident occurred.

“She thinks maybe it could have been him, maybe not," Trump told reporters. "She admits that she was drunk. She admits that there are time lapses.”

In a political landscape where a list of 65 women recommending a man's character is considered a viable defense against mounting sexual assault allegations, it might make sense for Kavanaugh to put up his alleged virginity as an additional defense. But if anyone has any hopes of creating a culture that supports—instead of vilifies and discredits—survivors of sexual assault, it just won't do, Nesbitt says.

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"What we need to be saying as advocates for survivors is: your virginity—whatever that means to you—is beside the point," Nesbitt said. "We don’t need to talk about church groups or how hard you studied in high school.

"We know people who perpetrat abuse can be phenomenal in all other realms of their life," Nesbitt continued. "It doesn't mean they haven't committed sexual assault."