Lessons from the Kavanaugh Hearings: Himpathy, Bro Culture, and Sex Education

Am I the only one who experienced whiplash during the recent Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings? I careened between feeling hopeful that our culture had finally changed since the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in the early 1990s — when Hill’s testimony about being sexually harassed by Thomas was treated with callous disregard by male senators — and hopelessness when powerful senators dismissed the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to protect Kavanaugh without completing an investigation into the allegations brought against him by Ford and several other women.

Anemona Hartocollis and Dana Goldstein of the New York Times write that the Kavanaugh hearings reminded Americans of the entrenched strain of aggressive hypersexualized “bro culture” that still persists today on high school and college campuses (and in many businesses). The bro culture described during Kavanaugh’s high school and college days is not a thing of the past. Studies show that most assaults of young women today are perpetrated by an acquaintance. One in five women in college experience sexual assault on campus. Peggy Orenstein writes that high school and college boys are more likely to rape when they are drunk — without consequences. She explains, “He . . . goes on to professional success and even a happy marriage. Meanwhile, he may have derailed the life of another human being, causing her years, decades, of pain and trauma.”

Why is sexual assault in high school and college still so common? No parent wants to think that his or her son is capable of sexual assault, but Orenstein notes that a recent survey of more than three thousand men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five found that “more than 60 percent of respondents had never had a single conversation with their parents about how to be sure that your partner wants to be having sex with you . . . about ‘the importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you,’” or about how to stand up to other young men to stop a sexual assault. In other words, parents of boys are not educating them about responsible and ethical sexuality. Instead, most boys get their sex education in locker rooms, frat houses, and other all-male spaces where they hear that sex is about conquest. They also get their sex education from video games and movies, in which women are frequently portrayed as scantily clad sex objects, and from both everyday and celebrity role models.

As for the messages about gender that boys receive from society, Kate Manne writes about the “himpathy” advantage, or “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior.” Recent examples include President Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Brock Turner, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, all of whom received sympathy from some while the perspectives of their accusers were erased or dismissed.

Manne writes that it is now time for a mass moral reckoning because of “gendered sociopathy,” which relentlessly casts suspicion on female accusers while excusing the behavior of boys and men. Manne notes that this pattern in which the powerful are believed while the vulnerable are dismissed is actually a source of systemic injustice. It sends a clear message to boys and young men that they can treat women disrespectfully and will not be held accountable.

If anything is ever going to change, we must

  1. Learn to recognize this pattern of protecting men rather than believing women within ourselves
  2. Listen to girls and women and believe them
  3. Educate boys and young men about the tendency of alcohol to fuel aggressive behavior and about their responsibility to treat women and girls with respect

Are you the parent of boys or young men? What conversations are you having with them about sex?

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on November 12, 2018.

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