• #Me Too Must Become We Too

    New Zealanders who have followed reports of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court may well have experienced a sense of deja vu.

    They will have heard accounts of alleged encounters between Kavanaugh and his friends on the one hand and young women on the other hand who report being sexually assaulted by the Supreme Court nominee and his associates a number of years ago. Whatever the truth of these allegations (and let us hope that the truth can indeed be established) the ingredients of the alleged incidents are all too familiar.

    Whether Kavanaugh was or was not one of those responsible, what seems clear is that both the complainants and Kavanaugh grew up in a social milieu, both at high school and college, in which it was common practice for young men to deliberately ply young girls with alcoholic drinks at social gatherings with the intention of having sexual relations with them.

    The story will no doubt ring a bell with many New Zealand viewers and readers. It is, after all, only five years ago that the Roast Busters scandal burst upon the New Zealand scene.

    The Roast Busters story exhibited many of the same features as we now see in the allegations against Kavanaugh. There was the same involvement of young women complainants (some, in the Roast Busters case, under age) alleging that they had been offered drinks or drugs designed to render them incapable of “saying no” to sexual activity, the same male bonding and boasting on the part of a group of young men of school age, the same refusal to believe the complainants, and the same lack of action and blaming of the victims on the part of the authorities.

    In the Roast Busters case, the young complainants were apparently told by the police that, even if the offences had been committed, they had only themselves to blame – that they should not have been drinking or should not have been enticingly dressed. As with the Kavanaugh case, there was also a strong sense that the assaults were no more than a bit of “teenage mischief”. The question implicit in the public comments made in both cases was “who wasn’t involved in such situations when they were young”?

    But, while men may feel that they should not be responsible for mistakes they made as teenagers, and while behaviours may change and improve with growing maturity, attitudes rarely do.

    In the Roast Busters case, no one was ever charged and the perpetrators escaped without sanction. We are seeing in the Kavanaugh case the same sequence of events unfolding – complainants struggling to be heard, to be believed, and to have any sanctions applied against their assailants.

    What is surprising is that in two societies – the US and New Zealand – so geographically distant from each other and so culturally distinct, there are so many common features to the two stories. The assertion of male seigniorial rights by young men and the assumption that young women are simply sexual playthings, the unwillingness of the authorities to believe the complainants but their readiness to blame them, and the acceptance that such behaviour is par for the course and therefore free from blame, are apparently features of both societies – and no doubt of others as well.

    Little wonder, then, that the Prime Minister, in her speech at the United Nations, focused on the continuing issue of the denial to young women around the world of basic rights and opportunities. She effectively encapsulated her view of that issue when she said, “ ‘#Me too’ must become ‘we too’.”

    It is surprising, and sad, that some female commentators back home in New Zealand profess not to understand what the Prime Minister meant by this remark. The meaning seems very clear to me. What Jacinda Ardern is saying is that it is not just the victims but all of us, society as a whole, that must refuse to accept that sexual assaults on young women are normal and just a bit of fun.

    Young women, like everyone else, have the right to live in a society where they are free from the threat and reality of unwanted sexual advances.
    Bryan Gould
    1 October 2018