Consent, Entitlement, and a History of Sexual Violence

Few things are more dangerous than a man

who is capable of dividing himself into several men,
each of them with a unique river of desire

on their tongues.

It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die, Hanif Abdurraqib

In the adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novelA History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s film vividly confronts viewers with at least a couple powerful and related questions: Is human violence necessarily sexual (natural), and is human sexuality necessarily violent?

This dilemma, I think, is also facing us during the Brett Kavanaugh controversy as that narrative expands and unfolds with more and more details about his privileged past in elite prep school and college.

Let me begin with confession.

From about my junior year in public high school in rural upstate South Carolina and through my first two years in junior college, I drank quite a lot—some times legally (beer) and often illegally (liquor).

Bearded in college, in fact, I looked much older than my age so I would stroll arrogantly into liquor stores and buy bottle after bottle without a single occasion of being carded.

This adolescent and young adult stupidity and carelessness, this culture of drinking, was compounded by our drinking and driving. Often.

Much of my self-worth was built on being seen as someone who could drink to excess and not appear drunk. I was the responsible drinker among my friends, the one charged with driving.

None of this is about a life I am proud of living. But I would also suggest that my experiences and behaviors are shared by many young people—approaching what we can fairly call “normal” behavior.

However, here is where I start having some issues with the “boys will be boys” excuses offered for Kavanaugh.

Even after excessive drinking, I have never sexually assaulted or harassed women. And throughout my life, I have never been violent, mostly embracing passivism (including rejecting corporal punishment of children as a parent and grandparent).

In short, I have held the beliefs and behaviors that honor the sanctity of those weaker or more marginalized than I am.

Even while drunk. Even as I have not by any stretch been a perfect human. Even as I will never try to create a narrative of me as a choirboy just trying to live the righteous life.

Because I have sins I am ashamed to admit.

Although I do believe consent is sacred and have never breeched that line through coercive sex, I have been guilty for much of my life of the intrusion of the male gaze and my own direct and indirect participation in the wider culture of objectifying women through so-called “locker room” behavior all too common among most men.

Viewed by those men as harmless and “just joking,” this language and behavior are hard to avoid and socially awkward to confront. I have in later adulthood come to realize this normal behavior is neither harmless nor funny since it all contributes to sexism, misogyny, and even rape culture.

It is at the intersection of rape culture that my life experiences greatly diverge from the world being described surrounding Kavanaugh and his high school and college friends.

That divergence, I think, can be traced to entitlement. I grew up working class and fully aware I was not entitled to anything, even my parents’ love.

The wealth and privilege of Kavanaugh’s world, however, are paths to entitlement—men who believe they are entitled to everything, including women’s bodies and sex.

One of the grossest manifestation of that can be seen in the slut-shaming among Kavanaugh’s football teammates and printed in the yearbook (“Renate Alumnius”). But the grossest example is the frat-party culture that began for Kavanaugh in high school and continued through college.

As Jessica Valenti wrote in 2014: “numerous studies have found that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape, that women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women, and that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in four years away at school.”

Let’s now add some context to Kavanaugh being nominated for the Supreme Court and just who controls that process:

And just who has sat and now sits on the highest court:

All of this is to confront, then, it is normal for frat culture to include rape culture.

But it is not normal adolescent or young adult behavior [1], I must argue, because frat culture/rape culture is an extension of privilege and entitlement, not the consequence of human nature. Kavanaugh’s world and the world that young men and women like him now see being dismantled and re-interpreted:

Just as pathological liars believe everyone is lying, the entitled believe their entitlement—including the coerced and violently taken sex of those not giving consent, not able to consent—is simply the way the world works. I am reminded, for example, of Richard Dreyfuss’s retort to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.’”

As a man continually forced to investigate my own humanity against #MeToo, my culpability both indirect and direct, I seek ways to honor consent and human dignity, continually unpacking my past, always reflecting on my present, and reaching for a better me in the future.

Like the dilemma exposed by Cronenberg’s film, Hanif Abdurraqib ends It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die with

The only difference between sunsets and funerals

is whether or not a town mistakes the howls
of a crying woman for madness.

Sunsets harken the end to daylight that leads to night and the promise of tomorrow. Funerals rings more final, an ending.

We, the “town,” a community, must make a choice at some point; maybe this reckoning of Kavanaugh and his entitled class will be that transition.

To remain stuck in the mire of misogyny, reducing all women to the hysterical type that renders them less than human and thus the free bounty of the entitled.

Or to recognize the “howls/of a crying woman” as a plea for her dignity that has too often been sacrificed for the entitled, “a man/who is capable of dividing himself into several men”—one of them dressed in a suit and spinning tells of a choirboy past so that we are too distracted to see the monsters he has been, the monsters he will continue to be.

[1] See this thread that explains with citations: “The best studies estimate that as many as 10.8% of young men commit an act of rape before graduating from college.”