the kavanaugh hearings

Can’t You Take a Joke?

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Freud had a name for the laughter Dr. Christine Blasey Ford remembered between Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge. It was smut: sexual aggression posing as play. In one of the most poignant parts of her almost unbearably poignant testimony, Ford described that aspect of her assault as the most searing: “the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.”

For Freud, smut is a scenario that calls for three people: there’s the one who is being sexually aggressive (Kavanaugh), a second who is taken as the object of the aggression (Ford), and a third who witnesses the scene and laughs (Judge). That laughter is the crucial element, as it is the goal: In smut, the focus is producing pleasure in a third-party bystander. Smut can play a part in sexual assault — as Ford describes in Kavanaugh’s case — and can also be sublimated into the form of a verbal joke.

The important thing is that smut gives people a way of being aggressive while simultaneously disguising their aggression. It’s the ambiguity that makes it particularly insidious. Is it really a violation? Or is it only a joke, something the target should be able to laugh off? An illustrative example can be found in the recollections of soldiers at Abu Ghraib, who often used it as a way of breaking detainees. In a letter home, Sabrina Harman, an MP at Abu Ghraib, wrote the following:

I walk down stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp to find “the taxicab driver” handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation.

The image of a man with underwear over his face mixes up bodily regions and functions (you don’t eat where you shit), and Harman “had to laugh.” She thought, “that’s funny.” But as the situation escalated, “it hit [her], that’s a form of molestation.” It’s exactly this sort of situation that provides a fertile ground for smut. Contradictory signals — violence and fun — can scramble a person’s ability to interpret what’s happening. It makes the benign funnier, as with tickling. But it also makes the malicious more dangerous, able to be passed off as play: Think of the “boys will be boys” argument.

What’s particular about smut is that its aggression is triangulated and doesn’t work without the third element: the bystander’s laughter. It creates an incentive for the aggressor: the greater the bystander’s expression of pleasure, the greater the ability of the aggressor to disguise his aggression. But part of what adds to the confusion of the scenario is that the bystander could just as easily slide toward a different angle of the triangle into an unsettled reaction, as Harman did. Ford’s portrayal of Judge seems to indicate that even as she clocked his laughter, she also sensed some ambivalence — he “was urging Brett on, although at times he told Brett to stop” and she “made eye contact with [him] and thought he might try to help [her], but he did not.” If the bystander steps out of the formation, the triangle collapses and what’s left is a direct, undeniable line between the aggressor and his victim.

It makes sense that Ford says it is the laughter she remembers most, because it was one of a number of factors that likely skewed her coordinates of reality. (Being transformed from a subject — someone in control of her own body and desires — to an object at the mercy of another is another reliable way of doing this, and that disorientation leads to its own form of trauma.) Rearranging another’s coordinates of reality (also known as gaslighting) accompanies most forms of abuse, whether physical or emotional, overt or covert. Then there is the added pressure, in adolescence, of being expected to take things the right way. There are even a number of stock phrases that are used to control the interpretation of others in hostile circumstances: Don’t take it the wrong way, lighten up, can’t you take a joke?

Most laughter has nothing to do with humor but is used to communicate outside of language, often in aggressive, nervous, or power-laden contexts in order to manipulate, control, or subvert. Other species laugh spontaneously, but don’t use laughter in this meta-communicative way, as a dog doesn’t fake pain. What makes the kind of laughter that accompanies smut particularly pernicious is the power dynamic it expresses. It reveals an exchange between men triangulated through an objectified woman, fueling their circuit of power and libido at, as Ford put it, her expense.

Nuar Alsadir is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in New York. She is currently writing a book on laughter.

Can’t You Take a Joke?