Long Reads

Do sexual assault allegations really ruin a man’s career? Just ask Brett Kavanaugh

The US Supreme Court justice, who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, has now been given a prestigious teaching job in the UK. It shows that some men don’t just survive in the wake of sexual assault allegations; they thrive. 

Last September, the world was rocked by the news that Brett Kavanaugh – Donald Trump’s ultra-conservative pick for the US Supreme Court – had been accused of sexual assault by a California professor. Dr Christine Blasey Ford, a 52-year-old lecturer in psychology at Palo Alto University, grew up in the same Washington DC suburbs as Kavanaugh. After learning that he was poised to become one of the most powerful men in America, she decided to go public with a story she had previously only told those closest to her: her husband, her therapist.

In 1982, Ford said, the then 17-year-old Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a party. She claimed he pinned her down, put his hands over her mouth, and tried to pull off her clothes. “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford told The Washington Post. At an agonisingly intense congressional hearing in September, Ford recalled how Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge mocked her while she struggled: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.”

In the immediate aftermath of Ford speaking out against Kavanaugh, many prominent politicians and pundits engaged in public hand-wringing at this “attempted ruin” of a “good man’s” career and reputation. (Kavanaugh has always denied Ford’s allegations, as well as those of two other women who accused him of sexual misconduct.) It’s important to note here that all the available data suggests false sexual assault allegations are extremely rare: the US National Sexual Violence Resource Center puts the prevalence of false sexual assault reporting at between 2% and 10%, while the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service estimates that false allegations make up 0.62% of all rape cases.

Christine Blasey Ford stands before the Senate Judiciary Committee, 27 September 2018
Christine Blasey Ford stands before the Senate Judiciary Committee, 27 September 2018

Despite this, the hashtags #ProtectOurBoys and #HimToo gathered steam on social media in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, as conservatives – including many women – argued that false claims were blowing up the lives of innocent men. You might remember that viral #HimToo tweet in which a woman claimed her 32-year-old son wouldn’t go on dates because he was afraid of “false sexual accusations by radical feminists with an axe to grind”, prompting her son to publicly contradict her in the The New York Times.

Never one to miss a chance to denigrate women, Trump himself made a rambling statement in which he claimed that the #MeToo movement had created “a very scary time for young men in America”.

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“You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life, and somebody could accuse you of something,” the president said, when asked about Kavanaugh. It’s easy to hear the implied end of that sentence: and then your blameless existence is destroyed forever.

Except, of course, Kavanaugh’s life wasn’t destroyed at all. Despite a spit-flecked, startlingly emotional performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee – in which he variously interrupted and refused to answer Democratic senators, bellowed about liking beer, and peddled conspiracy theories about the Clintons – he was confirmed as the new Supreme Court justice on 6 October. He began his tenure on the Supreme Court two days later. 

Trump shakes Kavanaugh's hand
Trump shakes Kavanaugh’s hand before delivering his State of the Union address in February

And now, it has been announced that Kavanaugh will be taking up a prestigious teaching post in England this summer. The Supreme Court justice will teach a course at the Antonin Scalia Law School in Runnymede, Surrey, a UK outpost of George Mason University in Virginia. The Guardian reports that Kavanaugh will lead a course on the American constitution at the law school, the location of which was chosen because of its connection to the Magna Carta.

Predictably and understandably, the decision to appoint Kavanaugh as a teacher on the course has created anger and distress. A student group of sexual assault survivors and their advocates, Mason for Survivors, is currently protesting the hire. In a petition, which had more than 4,000 signatures at the time of writing, the group accuses George Mason University of consistently failing “to support survivors of sexual assault and the student body as a whole”. 

The president of George Mason University, Ángel Cabrera, responded by saying that the law school had “determined that the involvement of a US Supreme Court justice contributes to making our law program uniquely valuable for our students”. In other words, Kavanaugh’s high professional standing is considered more significant than his reputation as someone credibly accused of sexual assault.

All of this somewhat undermines the notion, widely peddled around the Kavanaugh hearings, that men’s lives are routinely wrecked by sexual misconduct allegations. Because Kavanaugh isn’t just surviving in the aftermath of Ford’s testimony against him; he’s thriving. Ford, in contrast, has been forced to move house four times due to death threats, has had to pay for a private security detail, and hasn’t been able to return to work.

Activists protest Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to Supreme Court
Activists protest Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court 

Kavanaugh isn’t the only prominent man who has prospered following sexual assault and harassment claims. Former Disney and Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter received a six-month paid leave of absence after being accused of habitual workplace sexism and sexual harassment, and was subsequently hired as head of animation for Skydance Animation. Louis CK, who has admitted to routinely masturbating in front of women without their consent, has been selling out shows in which he complains about how hard his life is. 

Donald Trump himself has been accused of sexual misconduct, including serious claims of assault, by almost two dozen women. So far, neither his life nor career appears to have been ruined.

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Kavanaugh’s shiny new job is simply another piece of evidence to back up what we already knew: men’s careers are not often ended by sexual assault allegations, real or fake. (I refer you again to those statistics on false reporting.) Despite the strides made by the #MeToo movement, the world at large would still rather forgive and forget sexual misconduct allegations unless they are both unequivocally heinous and seemingly irrefutable.

If a powerful man strenuously denies the accusations against him, or if the alleged event happened too long ago for police to bring charges, or if there weren’t any witnesses, or if people are able to minimise what he is accused of (it wasn’t rape; she was drunk; it was a different time; he thought she was into it), he still stands a pretty good chance of bouncing back.

So Trump is half-right: we are living in a scary time. But it’s not men like Kavanaugh who have real cause to be afraid.

Images: Getty Images