Opinion |

Trump, Kavanaugh and the Rape Culture of the American Jock

I learned from an early age not to talk about this. I want to talk about this now

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh looking at U.S. President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 9, 2018.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh looking at U.S. President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 9, 2018. Credit: \ JIM BOURG/ REUTERS
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

For weeks now, I've been watching my entire American life flash before my eyes.

I don't like what I'm seeing. Not about America, and not about me.

I learned from an early age not to talk about this. I want to talk about this now.

It is about jock culture. How jock culture is also rape culture. And how jock culture runs America. And, to an extent that I hate to look at directly, how it runs every male I know, in some way. How it runs me.

Like every other American, I know it in my bones. But too often, for males, for me, that's where it stays, unexamined, unaddressed, destructive, all too often breaking the skin and exploding to the surface in some distorted, uncontrolled, inappropriate, hurtful amalgam of the fear and the rage and the willful blindness that jock culture has instilled in all of us males from the day we were born.

This is not to suggest that jocks are more prone to be sexual predators than other males. It is meant to suggest only that jock culture has poisoned every one of us.

I don't know how it is now, for girls and boys growing up. I've been living overseas too long to know. But I know what America was like when Donald Trump was growing up and, a generation later, Brett Kavanaugh. I cannot begin to fathom the courage it took for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to stand unbowed and strong in the face of those two jock-obsessed, jock-pandering, jock culture-privileged men, and relate a story with which uncounted women and girls could identify, to the unstated dread of uncounted men and boys.

Prof. Christine Blasey Ford being sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, September 27, 2018.Credit: \ JIM BOURG/ REUTERS

I know now, looking back as an adult, as a spouse, as a parent, that to be a girl growing up in America was more terrifying, more unfair, more unsafe, much more deeply painful than anything I could have imagined as a boy.

I can speak only to what it felt like growing up as a boy, when I did, where I did.

Right from the start, you knew where you fit in – or, more likely, did not. At the top of the male ladder were natural athletes who, more often than not, also enjoyed an additional overlay of privilege, whether by virtue of physicality, legacy or class.

For the rest of us, the majority of less athletic, often more studious males, jocks were bigger than you. They could beat you up. They could beat you up while their bro jocks held you, or took part, or – and you will recall this as a theme of Kavanaugh's accusers – stood and laughed. They were – in a word that we would learn only much later, and in ways we could not then even begin to imagine – entitled.

They were entitled to girls. That's what the jock code told them in its unstated, thoroughly inculcated way. They were entitled to treat girls as two-dimensional; conquests to be used and abused, scorecarded and discarded. Athletic contests. Just like drinking. How many beers? How fast?

Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. Supreme Court associate justice nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, September 27, 2018.Credit: Bloomberg

And the rest of us, in our weakness, in every sense, were silent.

The jocks, at least, had a very distinct, if also largely unspoken, code. They were meant to believe they deserved the privilege they were born to. So much so that they did not see it as privilege. See Under: Donald ("I started at the bottom") Trump, son of a multimillionaire real estate tycoon; and Brett ("I have no connections [at Yale]. I got there by busting my tail") Kavanaugh, who was a legacy – his grandfather, Everett Edward Kavanaugh, having gone to Yale.

Jocks were meant to believe that the world was divided in three:

A. Winners, often led by a football hero who doubled as the Apex predator;

B. The winners' court of adoring subordinates, unconditionally loyal, grateful for scraps of attention, reflected glory and immunity from abuse at the hands of the true jocks; and

C. Losers. The rest of us.

They knew because the mark of the true jock, the true Apex predator, was the extent of the outrage you could get away with and still succeed, rise, conquer. The extent of the laughing approval the jock elicited from fellow males. They knew because of the "Access Hollywood" tape. And, just this week, they knew because of the misogyny in Trump's every appearance – from his cruel, infantile and interminable imitation of Sen. Dianne Feinstein as a bewildered dementia sufferer, to his true-to-form, dismissive and insulting response to ABC News correspondent Cecilia Vega. "I know you're not thinking," Trump said, to a world audience, but specifically to his base. "You never do."

Still, there remains something fundamentally misleading in all of this. Something I myself missed because of my wishful thinking and my long-ingrained reliance on stereotypes. The fact is that the perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment are by no means limited to one group, nor to those who hold a particular category of privilege and power.

In the abysmal age of Trump, and for those of us who found ourselves playing the loser to the self-proclaimed Ultimate Winner, it's all too easy to decide that jock culture is a primary cause of rape culture – and not, more accurately, that jock culture is rape culture's very public symptom.

It was always too easy, and too self-servingly convenient, for the rest of us – remembering ourselves as homely, shy, unloved and worried-about-being-unlovable members of the marching band, say, or the drama clique, or the Future Farmers, or even the Human Relations Club, or noncontact sports teams like tennis – to see jocks as a whole as marauding predators. But in fact, the male perpetrators of sexual assault on girls and women – and on men and boys as well – most certainly come from every group, from the alumni of the marching band through the Human Relations Club to the Future Farmers, evangelicals and Catholics and Muslims and Jews and unbelievers alike.

That saying "Boys will be boys" had a dark and dangerous potential application for any and all of us, wherever we came from, whoever we were: The implied idea that Boys Will Be Boys could be interpreted to suggest that engaging in nonconsensual sexual acts could be excused if undertaken to prove oneself a Real Man.

For the non-jocks, for the losers, it was all too easy to watch the jocks from a psychically safe distance, secure in our mistaken belief that we were not part of the same system. But we were. And how.

The specific behaviors may have been different enough to allow us to fool ourselves. Sophisticated enough. Universal enough. But none of us was immune. Not one of us is, to borrow Trump's term for Kavanaugh, unblemished.

One last thing I was wrong about: I would have thought that with the emergence and the moral force of feminism, the persistence of rape culture would have changed over time. Certainly by now.

No. Not even close. If one theme has come through clearly in the testimony of Kavanaugh and his defense by Trump, it is that, if anything, the culture that says to believe the jock over his accuser – and the privilege that lends the jock not only a presumption of innocence but an assumption of innocence – is still alive and well.

I know that the toxicity is in me, too. My view of the relationships between men and women has evolved over time, but it is nowhere near anything exemplary. To this day, and not for lack of trying to do better, when women are speaking to me I interrupt, or fail to listen, or conveniently forget, or fail to take opinions seriously, and take too little responsibility for my actions. I mansplain, and drone on, and bear unreasonable grudges, and take unfair and unacknowledged advantage of male privilege. I am and have long been woefully undersupportive and exploitative, and explode in inappropriate rage.

And that's just for starters.

Yes, it's true, jock culture is only one element in a vast and pervasive rape culture in America. But it's a powerful force, nonetheless, especially at the time of a president who waves away claims of sexual assault as "locker room talk."

Because it's also true that jocks were meant to believe that applying to the right college, joining the right clubs, starting a family, riding privilege all the way to career success – all of it would buy redemption from whatever dimly remembered or blacked-out abuses and crimes may have marked their youth. No consequences.

In a few days, if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, we may find out that the jocks were right all along.

And this is an appointment for life.

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