Every year for the past decade, the Family Research Council has hosted the Values Voter Summit, a convention of conservative activists who vote based on traditional right-wing values. Those values are predictable: They’re opposed to gay marriage, abortion rights, and immigration; they support gun rights, tax cuts, and personhood for both fetuses and corporations.
This year, there was a new value to add: the belief that sexual assault might be a morally acceptable act—or at minimum, that it is not an unequivocally immoral act. In a speech at the summit on Saturday, Gary Bauer—the former FRC president and current head of the right-wing nonprofit American Values—said that Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was “unproven and … unprovable.” But more than that, Bauer said, women “shouldn’t want a country where … the man in your life can be ruined by someone getting up and saying ‘36 years ago, he did this to me.’ ”
Here, Bauer suggests that women should turn against those who claim to have survived sexual violence in order to protect their husbands and, by association, themselves. A culture that believes women when they publicly recount memories of pain, trauma, and shame is one that could expose sexual violation as commonplace—a transgression that the man to whom you’ve hitched your social and financial security has probably enabled, if not enacted. Both Ford’s story and the new allegation that Kavanaugh shoved his exposed penis in the face of an unwilling college classmate include bystanders who allegedly egged him on as he drunkenly forced himself on women. In his speech at the Values Voter Summit, Bauer tried to get women in the audience to see their husbands in those bystanders, if not in Kavanaugh himself. If conservative Christian women who’ve sublimated their desires into their husbands’ were forced to reckon with the likelihood that those men have applauded or perpetrated the things Kavanaugh and Donald Trump have been accused of doing, and if they were forced to confront those things as morally wrong, their worlds would come unmoored.
While conservatives are busy reassuring themselves that sexual harassment and assault are not systemic problems because they’re not problematic at all—just horseplay, really—a parallel conversation is taking place on the left, in which women periodically dredge up and display their worst memories in hopes of kindling empathy and effecting social change. For the past few years, a pattern has emerged: Whenever a seemingly game-changing allegation becomes public, women flood social media to share stories of their own experiences with sexual assault, as if they could prove the severity of the problem through sheer numbers. The Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging about groping women’s genitals prompted women to tweet about the first time they were sexually violated, using the hashtag #notokay. The ghastly allegations against Harvey Weinstein inspired people around the world to relive their memories of harassment and assault with #MeToo, an attempt to demonstrate that big-name alleged rapists like Weinstein were just the tip of the iceberg. When Roy Moore was accused by several women of abusing young teenagers and pursuing relationships with them while a prosecutor in his 30s, women tweeted photos of themselves at 14 years old (#MeAt14) to illustrate that 14 is too young to meaningfully consent to sexual contact with a 32-year-old man. Before all that, there was #YesAllWomen, which endeavored to show the pervasiveness of gender-based violence and harassment in response to the 2014 Isla Vista, California, murders carried out by a young man who’d found a home for his hatred of women within the incel and men’s rights movements.
On Friday, a new sexual assault–related hashtag, #WhyIDidntReport, took hold on Twitter. Its origin was a Trump tweet that questioned why Ford or her parents didn’t report Kavanaugh to the police in 1982 if his alleged assault “was as bad as she says.” The hashtag’s assumption seemed earnest and a bit naïve: that perhaps there are people out there who spend time on Twitter, follow women who tweet about sexual assault, think women are lying about a decades-old sexual assault they didn’t report, but are still somehow willing to believe other women’s stories of sexual violence and possibly change their minds. Perhaps! But it’s far more likely that people sympathetic to Trump’s skepticism of women who don’t file police reports about sexual assault will continue to roll their eyes. Those who think like Trump are far more likely to see easily triggered women who refuse to take responsibility for their own sexual behavior than they are to let a series of tweets awaken them to structural barriers to sexual-assault reporting.
Women on the right are no more likely than their male counterparts to be moved by a Twitter campaign of women recounting their own sexual traumas. For conservative women, rejecting the notion of sexual violence as pervasive and wrong is integral to preserving their sense of self and community belonging. Another speaker at this year’s Values Voter Summit, the anti-Islam, anti-gay vlogger known as Activist Mommy, is a prime example of the kind of anti-feminism that Christian conservatives offer women. In a December 2017 video on “the sexual harassment movement,” Activist Mommy calls #MeToo “an assault on men and masculinity” and on “natural love between men and women.” She posits that a woman who willingly enters her boss’s hotel room is just as guilty as the boss who then forces himself on her, that such women are “Jezebels,” and that the women who accused Matt Lauer of sexual harassment “betrayed Matt’s wife.”
This worldview would have survivors of sexual violence, including Christian conservative ones, blame themselves instead of their assailants, as so many already do. In a community that fetishizes male authority in the church, the home, and the workplace, a sexual power structure infected by male aggression seems unobjectionable, even natural. The arguments Phyllis Schlafly was making in 1981—“sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman”—are the same ones conservative women like Activist Mommy and Candace Owens are using now to sow fear of a #MeToo movement that casts any woman with a husband as a potential future Ashley Estes Kavanaugh or Annette Roque. If sexual misconduct’s definition is so narrow and the threshold for believability and fault is so high that only Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby qualify, women won’t ever have to confront the politically inconvenient reality—and personally devastating realization—of a society simultaneously full of and indifferent to sexual violation.
But there is some utility to the #WhyIDidntReport and #YesAllWomen and #MeAt14 and #MeToo hashtags, even if they never inspire a surge of defectors to abandon Trumpism and the right-wing dogma that regards sexual assault as both a rarity and no big whoop. The hashtags and the abusive patterns that prompt them have set in motion a cycle of female emotional excavation and self-examination, a recurring reminder of the battles feminists have yet to win. They help women place isolated incidents in the context of systemic power imbalances and forestall complacency by keeping emotions fresh.
The cultural conversations that surrounded each of these hashtags have resurfaced long-submerged memories for some women and pushed others to reassess and recategorize transgressions they once waved away as benign. When a slew of women came forward with sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump in October 2016, then–Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that Trump had “shaken a psychic snow globe, and now flickers of half-remembered horror are floating through the atmosphere all around us.” Calls and online chats to a rape and abuse hotline spiked in the days after the Access Hollywood video came out. The #MeToo movement and the wave of public accusations that followed motivated many women, myself included, to confront the men in our lives who’d never had to answer for their exploitative behavior. The moment has also pushed former victims to relinquish the self-blame that accompanies a sexual assault processed alone. Deborah Copaken wrote in the Atlantic last week that the initial Kavanaugh allegations led her to contact the man who date-raped her in college. She accepted his 30-years-late apology. The most recent allegation against Kavanaugh will no doubt remind even more women of similar incidents from their college years and provoke a similar reckoning.
It’s extraordinarily painful to realize and admit that a disturbing memory you tucked away in the category of boys being boys was textbook sexual assault. It’s confusing to comprehend that a long-ago event that caused you no physical or emotional harm may have nonetheless been an act of sexual exploitation. It’s exhausting and distracting to be faced every few months with a wall of tweets that remind you of the times you felt weakest and destroyed. And it’s profoundly dispiriting to realize that this is the new normal—that women will keep offering vivid descriptions of their dehumanization in hopes that right-wing defenders of the likes of Trump, Kavanaugh, and Moore will listen, and that those women will keep getting brushed off as hysterical, asking-for-it, overdramatic, angry, man-hating opportunists.
But pain may still predicate a foundation for healing, and consciousness-raising has its place even if it never wins any converts. Where women once got an Anita Hill–grade moment of galvanizing anger once a decade, they now get one every few months. With the GOP salivating over the empty Supreme Court seat, the fast-approaching midterms, and the 2020 elections not far behind, the chronic agony of sexual-violence hashtags may provide the fuel female activists need to keep up the fight. We don’t have to tell each other to stay woke when the periodic invitation to revisit our trauma makes it impossible to get any rest at all.