For a young man or woman living in the 1980s and striving to be pious, industrious and virginal there was a whole lot of temptation to avoid. Staying true to such a strict commitment required almost superhuman self-control.
That’s why it seemed astounding when Brett Kavanagh, in an unforced answer during his Fox News interview said, “I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.”
It was a careful choice of words: Even the term “sexual intercourse” sounded strangely clinical, as though it made sexual assault unthinkable. After all, by the 1980s America had lived through at least two decades of a cultural revolution in which sex education had gone retail to an extent never seen before and the explicit vocabulary of copulation was commonplace.
Nobody on any college campus could have been protected from the industrialization of soft porn, whether in magazines, movies, literature or the theater. Anyone who still believed that sex outside marriage was original sin would, you would think, have to rush off and join monks in a remote mountain-top retreat in order to stay pure.
But if men felt free to roam like feral hunters, women realized that the 1980s were not delivering the liberation of body and mind that had been proclaimed in the heady celebration of the arrival of the contraceptive pill. In theory such a dependable form of contraception afforded women the freedom of choosing when to consent to sex and to enjoy it safely without the consequence of pregnancy.
This prospect was held out in a remarkable essay, titled Sex in America, by George Leonard, a guru from California’s Esalen Institute, and Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist who coined the term “global village” in Look magazine in 1967. They wrote:
“The demands for new male and female ideals and actions are all around us, changing people in many a subtle and unsuspected way. But there is one specific product of modern technology, the contraceptive pill, that can blow the old boundaries sky high. It makes it possible for the sexual woman to act like the sexual man. Just as the Bomb instantly wipes out all the separating boundaries essential to conventional war, the Pill erases the old sexual boundaries in a flash. The Pill makes woman a Bomb.”
For starters, the assumption that the sexual woman would want to act like the sexual man was masculine in its arrogance. More decisively, the commercialization of sex confirmed, rather than demolished, the sexual man’s idea of woman as a sex object, whether as rendered relatively harmless in Playboy centerfolds, the 1968 fantasy Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda and directed by Roger Vadim, or the explicit and immortal 1972 classic Deep Throat in which Linda Lovelace found stardom in a way that later tormented her.
It was notable that all these confections were authored by men and required women to play the roles assigned by men.
By the mid-‘70s the illusion of the sexual revolution for women was exposed in clinical detail when the researcher Shere Hite published a book, The Hite Report, that revealed that American women were far more conflicted about sex than was previously supposed.
Ninety-eight percent of the women who responded to Hite in questionnaires said they were dissatisfied with their sex lives.
Reviewing the book, the novelist Erica Jong said, “Most of the respondents thought that the sexual revolution was a myth, that it had left them free to say yes (but not to say no), that the double standards was alive and well, that the quantity of sex had gone up, not the quality. Most of them labeled themselves ‘good girls’ and told of family backgrounds in which their parents clearly communicated that sex for girls was bad and that girls who did ‘it’ would be despised by boys.”
Hite’s work showed that few American women had actually experienced the kind of liberating moments that were widely hyped as harbingers of their escape from those traditional domestic constraints… for example the great free love weekend at Woodstock in 1969 or the far more political women’s liberation marches of 1971.
There were really two Americas, the one in which women were enabled to practice sex on their own terms without threat, and by far the larger world in which that kind of freedom was regarded as a threat itself, to the settled order of things as ordained by men. In that world the primal misogynist still behaved as he had in settings like Mad Men where promiscuity was a male privilege and the promotion of women was organized by sexual predators.
In America, men had not yielded any real power where it mattered, either in politics or in any other power centers. Moreover, they were often belligerent in re-asserting their supremacy.
In their essay, Leonard and McLuhan wrote: “When a novelist like Norman Mailer contends that man is boxed-in by civilized constraints, he is quite right. But when he goes on to say that the free human spirit can now assert itself mostly through sex and violence, he is being merely Victorian.”
It seems strange to think of Harvey Weinstein and Leslie Moonves as Victorians but in their use of power to sate their lusts they were practicing entitled lechery in the same way that Victorian plutocrats like Stanford White, the honey-trap architect with his great waxed moustache, did. The damning point is that when that essay appeared in 1967 Mailer, an unapologetic thug with women, might briefly have seemed a cultural throwback but he was, in fact, the face of the future as well as of the past.
This was one of those instances in history where the reaction was stronger and more enduring than the initial action. Male supremacy retrenched and was consolidated through the seventies and eighties, to the point when, in1988, Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show went national he could use, without constraint, the term “feminazis” in his blowhard appeals to all the men who felt aggrieved by “uppity” women both at home and in the work place.
The same hostility was shown toward gays, who were seen as another arm of a cultural revolution that threatened the very core of masculinity.
Leonard and McLuhan had described homosexuality as “lifelong, specialized sexual inversion.” Trying hard to seem scientific rather than preposterously out of touch they argued: “Just as men in our society are far more specialized than women, so male homosexuality is far more prevalent… If a new, less specialized maleness emerges, it is possible that the need to turn to specialized homosexuality will decrease.”
Nobody could anticipate that by the 1980s the American gay population, more and more confident in its identity, would be decimated by a plague named AIDS. It was then that gays discovered that their place in the sexual revolution was far from universally accepted. As president, Ronald Reagan was for a long while in a state of denial about AIDS, indifferent to its toll and unwilling to order federal resources to deal with it.
As late as 1987 there was strong resistance to publicize AIDS prevention methods and the Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop was attacked by Education Secretary William Bennett for advocating the use of condoms. The conservative zealot Phyllis Schlafly, the Ann Coulter of the day, denounced AIDS education as “the teaching of safe sodomy.”
Homophobia like that was another part of the cultural and social context in which the young Brett Kavanaugh and his generation was shaped.
It was a febrile backdrop in which to form attitudes, seen by conservatives as indicating a future in which settled social values were under a dangerous challenge. Kavanaugh came from a privileged and conservative cohort that felt free to behave consistently badly through high school and, in his case, through Yale. They were hard-drinking and reactionary white males as sure of their power as they were of what they hated in the movements around them, particularly self-assured women.
According to his own admissions, Kavanaugh was an extreme example of this mindset. He was celibate and frequently inebriate. There is a clear sense that the inebriate is escaping the celibate, of a Jekyll and Hyde who is drinking not for pleasure (“I like beer”) but to seek another self where inhibitions can be shed.
To be sure, under questioning Kavanaugh was adamant that he never blacked out but that seems a questionable assertion given some of the graphic eye-witness accounts of what went on. Two women who were present at parties recalled that bathrooms became sprayed with vomit.
Kavanaugh himself supported this ghastly picture with his 1983 letter to friends, in his careful, clear script, about their plans for a “Beach Week” condo rental. He wrote: “It would probably be a good idea on Sat the 18th to warn the neighbors that we’re loud, obnoxious drunks with prolific pukers among us.”
As disgusting as this is, it’s important to realize that it doesn’t mean that binge drinking can be conflated into the inevitable prelude to sexual assault.
But that connection was made in a New Yorker piece about Elizabeth Rasor, who dated Kavanagh’s former drinking buddy Mark Judge, while they were students at Catholic University. She said Judge had ashamedly told of him and other boys taking turns having sex with the same drunk woman. (The New Yorker stressed that she had no knowledge of whether Kavanaugh was present.)
Rasor said Judge seemed to regard it as fully consensual. If so, the idea that sex with a drunk woman could be consensual displays a lack of moral grounding that in itself is horrifying. The tendency in cases of sexual harassment and attacks has been to readily accept a man’s idea of what constitutes consensual sex rather than the woman’s. Women have a very hard time proving that they are the victims.
Amid all the swirling accounts of carefully planned beach-side binges there is a constant beat of a kind of rage—a rage to find escape and break from the discipline of their normal social intercourse. There is a ritualistic quality suggesting a tribal rite of passage as young white men learn to behave as badly as they like, on their own terms.
Perhaps the strangest and most ritualistic symbol to appear among the many coded messages in Kavanagh’s 1983 yearbook was “The Devil’s Triangle.” Under questioning Kavanaugh said that this referred to a drinking game, but nobody else seems ever to have heard it used in that way.
Some versions have it describing sex between two men and a woman, though it is doubtful that would have been a calendar item for a yearbook. A simpler and more convincing explanation is that it represents what John Updike, in one of his more carnal stories written for Playboy, called the axis of a woman’s sex—pubic in location.
Assigning that sweet spot to the Devil told a lot about those who still saw sex as original sin. If that is how it seemed to Brett Kavanaugh some 20 years after the supposed sexual revolution it’s more than likely since then to have become baked into his judicial views when it comes to a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body.