Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
The statistic is shocking and, well, not: For an estimated one in 16 American women, according to a study published Monday in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, her “first time” having sex was “an unwanted first sexual intercourse that is physically forced or coerced.” As one of the study co-authors pointed out, “it is accurate” to call this what it is: rape. Among the women who experienced not first-time sex but first-time rape, the average age was about fifteen and a half. Their assailants were are on average six years older – adult men preying on girls.
Women’s stories of rape, assault, harassment and coercion are, at the very least, increasingly told out loud. And it’s hard to read this new study and not draw parallels between other recent events – most notably, the resurgence of sexual misconduct and assault claims against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – all of which he has vehemently denied – and questions about what we do with them.
Kavanaugh is back in the news thanks to “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” a book by New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, which explores and corroborates previously under-reported claims by Kavanaugh’s Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez that when she was a student, Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face as a joke. According to news reports, the FBI never fully investigated her claims, nor interviewed the people who reached out to them to corroborate.
Thanks to constraints put in place by the White House, sources told CNN, the FBI also never interviewed Christine Blasey Ford, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, nor Kavanaugh himself. The “investigation” was a sham, and the Trump administration made it that way.
With this story back in the news and threatening to delegitimize Kavanaugh’s place on the court (and certainly further tarnish his legacy), conservatives have gone on the offensive. In this, the Times’ controversial mishandling of an additional accusation and the President’s bombastic tweets for the Justice Department to “rescue” Kavanaugh (who has denied Ramirez’s allegations) have given them ammunition. Critics are calling Ramirez and the Times’ reporters discredited liars and even suggesting that having a penis pushed at you isn’t such a big deal.
And at least on the latter point, they’re right, in a way: sexualized acts of harassment, disrespect, contempt and dominance are constants in most women’s lives. They are our normal. And I suspect nearly every woman in the country has been on the receiving end of male dominance via sexual degradation at some point. Maybe it was the jolt of being cat-called when you were 11 and walking down the street in your new summer shorts. Maybe it was a guy who thrust his penis in your face at a college party, because his friends thought it was funny to humiliate and shock you.
It’s that steady hum of normality that sets the stage for the kind of pervasive coercion, control and violence that in turn produces the striking finding that millions of American women were raped the first time they had sex, and many millions more raped thereafter. These rapes, the JAMA study finds, have serious consequences for the women who experience them.
Women who are raped the first time they have sex are more likely to have unplanned first pregnancies and abortions; they are more likely to experience a series of gynecological issues including pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis; and they are more likely to carry psychological scars that carry over into the physical, reporting more illicit drug use, trouble completing tasks, and fair or poor health.
These big, life-altering acts – being raped as your sexual initiation – are troubling to read about; it’s heartbreaking, if not entirely surprising, how common this is. But the supposedly smaller acts of coercion and degradation matter, too. It is through these acts that girls learn their bodies are not just theirs, that it is a male prerogative to decide which girls are sexually desirable and worthy, and which girls are to be sexually humiliated – a calculus that can change in an instant, and one also calculated by men.
We teach girls and women the same lesson in our politics, a dynamic captured perfectly by the Kavanaugh nomination and confirmation hearings: Here is a man accused of engaging in these sexual humiliations women know so well, who is so protected by other men that a supposed “investigation” doesn’t bother to put so many women’s voices and their corroborators in the record, who ascends to one of the most powerful positions in the country, where he is now situated to strip women of our reproductive freedoms. That a woman’s right to determine whether and when to reproduce is even up for debate in this country is simply the continuation of the same arc of misogynist dominance and humiliation that means one in 16 American girls experiences rape before pleasurable, consensual sex.
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All of these threads coalesce in the Kavanaugh story. And so does a difficult conclusion: He sits on the Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment and virtually zero chance of being removed. Yes, women are speaking out, and yes, that is powerful. And yet, sometimes, all we’re left with are stories.