the body politic

When the Muzzle Comes Off

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

I write this not knowing if by the time it is published, Brett Kavanaugh will still be the Supreme Court nominee, or whether more people will have come forward with more stories of assault or degradation, or whether Chuck Grassley or Donald Trump will have doubled down on their inhumanity, or whether there will be more evidence put forth discrediting the women coming forward with stories about Brett Kavanaugh or other men currently engaged in his defense.

There is so much I don’t know about what’s going to happen next, whether on the Supreme Court or in the midterm elections or when it comes to the fate of the Trump administration or the future of the Democratic Party.

But what I do know with absolute assurance is that we are living through a period in which women are enacting crucial, swift, large-scale social and political change.

That change is happening whether or not Republicans push Kavanaugh through, whether or not Democrats take the House or the Senate. The change is not simply (or perhaps, not yet) about outcomes, but rather about expectations and what it’s okay to talk about and when. Women — 27 years after Anita Hill, 12 years after Tarana Burke’s Me Too, and one year into #MeToo — are refusing to stop speaking about their experiences, their perspectives, their memories. By doing so, they’re expanding the boundaries of what kinds of stories must be taken seriously — and bringing a much fuller picture of female humanity into view.

I thought about this forced shift when I opened the New Yorker piece by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow on Sunday night, and read about the kind of encounter most women I know have always assumed they’d never be able to recount in public — least of all in the midst of a highly scrutinized, high-stakes political battle — because it didn’t meet the impossibly high standards the world has set for women who’ve been abused or assaulted and want to be believed. The story was told by Deborah Ramirez, who told Mayer and Farrow that she almost didn’t come forward — even with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court in the balance — because what she had to relate happened one night in college when she’d been drinking. What she did remember was her Yale classmate Brett Kavanaugh pulling down his pants and thrusting his penis in her face against her will.

Ramirez openly admits that her memory is patchy, that only flashes are clear, that she was drunk to the point of slurring. Each of these things, she clearly understands, undermines her tale, leaves her open to a different kind of assault now, 35 years later. And yet she not only decided to tell her story; she, like Christine Blasey Ford, opened it up to investigation. The imperfection of her victimhood did not stop her from speaking, from insisting that her view of events should count just as much as the blithe, blanket denials being issued by a man we have no reason to believe remembers his drunken youth any more clearly than she remembers hers, yet whose word is reflexively granted more authority.

Ramirez’s willingness to speak was particularly affecting in the same week as the publication of Washington Post writer Elizabeth Bruenig’s remarkable reporting on the rape, in her Texas hometown, of 16-year-old Amber Wyatt, 12 years ago. At the time of her alleged assault, Wyatt did tell her story, to fellow students, to her mother, and to police. But her account of how, after getting drunk and high at a party, she was taken to a shed by two boys who penetrated her vaginally and anally, and demanded that she perform oral sex, wasn’t viewed as authoritative. Neither was the investigation that followed it, which included the collection of evidence of her attack and a medical examination at a hospital. Instead, Wyatt was vilified for having caused trouble to her community; vile slurs about her penetrability were spray-painted around her town and at her school; she was sent to finish her education elsewhere, and eventually written off as having made a false accusation, the voice she’d worked so hard to raise quelled, her story recalled as fallacious. Bruenig quotes a friend of Wyatt’s who remembers, “Everyone started blaming [Wyatt] because she said something, and if she would have kept her mouth shut then nothing would have ever happened.”

The message to women — especially those whose voices might disturb the peace — has always been that things will go better for them if they keep their mouths shut. In my forthcoming book about the political consequences of women’s rage, I write about a 16th-century torture device called the brank, which was used to muzzle a defiant or cranky woman by keeping her head and jaw clamped in a metal cage. Some of the iron bridles included tongue depressors; some of those had spikes on the bottom to pierce the flesh. When I visited the Tower of London last year, during the week that followed the publication of stories about Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual predation — told at long last by women whose tongues had been loosed — I saw an internally spiked metal neck collar on display. It was labeled a “collar for torture” and described as something to be “put around the necks of scolding or wayward wives.”

The censure of women who open their mouths in dissent or dissatisfaction or anything less than grinning compliance with the power structures that subjugate them is so common as to be the stuff of everyday catcalling. And we don’t just hear the reminders — “Come on, baby, smile — you look so pretty when you smile” — on the street. During the 2016 primaries, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough chided Hillary Clinton, after a set of primary victories, “Smile. You just had a big night.” And in 2018, commenting on Nancy Pelosi’s grim visage during Trump’s first State of the Union, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on CNN, “I think she should smile a lot more often.” When women like Pelosi and Clinton do open their mouths, they’re quickly cast as shrill and monstrous harpies. Do a Google image search of any powerful women in politics or public life, and you’ll see that their ideological opponents love to show pictures of them with their mouths open, mid-yell, the very act of making a loud noise a sign of their unnatural tendencies; it’s no accident that when he was asking to have her removed from Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings two weeks ago, Orrin Hatch referred to a protester yelling about health care as a “loudmouth.” The best way to discredit threatening women is to capture them giving loud voice to something that we might imagine is uncomfortable to hear.

And the best way to silence them — besides literally covering their mouths, as Kavanaugh is alleged to have done to Ford, as he was trying to rip her clothes off — is to ensure that their voices are considered illegitimate. There are a number of mechanisms with which to accomplish that. Bruenig writes of Wyatt’s economic precariousness, especially compared to the wealth and social stature of the young men who assaulted her. Wyatt, and Ramirez, considered themselves to be outsiders, who had to work to fit into comparatively more privileged circles. To be “the popular girl,” and “one of the cool kids,” Wyatt told Bruenig, she often drank and took drugs. Ramirez described feeling like a social outsider at the party of the wealthy, elite frat guys at Yale; she participated in a game in which she was directed to drink to the point of incapacitating drunkenness.

There are other qualities women are told to cultivate if they want to be liked and accepted: pliability, friendliness, flirtatiousness, sexual availability, forgiveness. Is it not devilishly grotesque that each and every one of these traits can be used to discredit their claims of having been preyed upon? Don’t believe her — she was drunk, she was flirting with me, she slept with so many people, here’s a photo of her smiling with me a year later, and now she says I raped her?

We cannot even begin to assess how many stories women don’t tell because they were drunk, or young, or had been playing along right up until the moment of assault, or had acquiesced to an assault because they felt they had no choice. This last dynamic was key to the horrifying tale, also told this week, by Laura Knoblach, the daughter of a Minnesota legislator who she said molested her from childhood. Once, she told reporters, when she was 15, her father asked if she liked the way he touched her, and she’d been too afraid to say anything but yes. Knoblach, like Wyatt, had told her story repeatedly throughout the years, but no one — until now — had listened.

The number of these stories — stories that have gone unheard, or unspoken, because they involve women whose experiences were complicated — is incalculable. Why didn’t I report? Because I was drunk; because I don’t remember perfectly; because I didn’t yell long enough; because no one would believe me; because everyone would think it was my fault; because I thought it was my fault; because I had less power. This is what has foregrounded the fundamental inexpressibility of so much of the full human experience for so many women, even in this era in which we have so often been told that one year’s worth of stories about the ubiquity of assault and harassment amounts to an overcorrection.

No. We’re nowhere near correct.

But what’s happening is getting us closer: We’re taking these stories seriously. Yes, in the case of Ramirez, because it may have an impact on a Supreme Court nomination. But it matters that it was reported in The New Yorker; it matters that the Washington Post created a special stand-alone section of its Sunday paper to feature Amber’s story. It matters that, unless Kavanaugh’s nomination is withdrawn, Ford will testify in front of the nation.

There may not be a legal or political outcome that is satisfying: The perpetrators may not face real repercussions. But part of what #MeToo has always been about — despite the obsessive focus on the consequences faced by men — is what happened to the women (and to the men who’ve spoken out about their own abuse). It’s been about the exposure of their realities.

The telling of the stories, the raising of the voices, does its own political work and reveals things that we may have known at some level but have never been able to see so plainly: the connection between policy — the desire to control women’s bodies via restricting and policing their reproductive autonomy — and the personal treatment of individual women. The connection between a desire for legal or political domination — over workers’ ability to bargain, citizens’ ability to vote, black people’s ability to walk the streets without fear of being indiscriminately accosted by the police — and the drive toward personal, physical domination.

Bruenig writes, powerfully, of Wyatt, “There will always be people nobody believes: people with lesser reputations, people who struggle with addiction, people without much capital, social or otherwise, to credit them. And there will always be cases of offenses that are real and true but hard to prosecute, which means that justice in the world — if it’s to exist at all — will have to … arise from some other reckoning than a proper settling of accounts.” In this vein, Bruenig offered her reporting on Wyatt, with the stated hope that it would “trouble” readers, in the way that it “still troubles” her.

All of these stories are troubling not just those of us who read them, but our view of power, in part by exposing its complicated, pervasive abuses. As women insist on wresting the metaphorical hands from their mouths, and we commit to listening to and examining what they have to say, this broken world may not get fixed, but it will never be the same.

When the Muzzle Comes Off