a sociological take on the kavanaugh hearing

The following is a guest post by Nicole Bedera.

I study adolescent sexual violence and, up until very recently, I found it hard to talk about the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh. The main reason for that is that the way social scientists think about sexual violence is very different from how the general public talks about it. There are a lot of facts that make up the foundation of sexual violence research that are not generally accepted—or even recognized—in other discourses. Earlier this week, I took to Twitter to share some of the basic things sociologists know about sexual violence that I thought might add context to the allegations Judge Kavanaugh faces, including those made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

To begin, we generally think of sexual violence—and particularly its perpetration—as something rare. When we do recognize sexual misconduct as a common experience, we tend to focus on victimization and the stories we heard during the beginnings of #MeToo and imagine serial rapists as the primary perpetrators of sexual assault. However, sexual assault perpetration is similarly ordinary. According to one of the most recent and rigorous studies, as many as 10.8% of college-attending young men commit an act of rape before graduating (Swartout et al. 2015). The rate might be alarming, but the reasons are different than we traditionally think. Acts of sexual misconduct usually are not reflective of a man’s hatred toward women (although sexism, especially when mixed with power, certainly does play a role; Diel, Rees and Bohner 2016). Instead, many men use sexual maltreatment of women as a way to bond with other men and assert their masculinity (Quinn 2002). Previous research indicates that these masculinity-asserting behaviors are more severe among young men (Pascoe 2005), including virgins (Diefendorf 2015; for the author’s take on the Kavanaugh allegations, see Diefendorf 2018). Social context matters, too. Some environments are more conducive to the perpetration of sexual violence than others (Armstrong, Hamilton and Sweeney 2006; Martin 2016). The allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are consistent with what sociologists know about sexual violence: it’s common, rooted in male bonding, and situational.

Because sexual violence is so common among adolescents, many girls and young women normalize the sexual abuse they endure, even when it rises to the legal level of sexual assault (Hlvaka 2014). However, minimizing an act of violence does not necessarily mean it wasn’t harmful. Researchers have found that the impact of sexual victimization can be long-lasting, especially if survivors don’t receive effective support and resources (Ahrens, Cabral and Abeling 2009). This is one reason why the women accusing Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault might have waited to come forward and are coming forward now. Women feel a pressure to minimize what happened, but trauma becomes hard to ignore when the pain remains (and perhaps intensifies) over time. Reminders of the sexual assault might trigger a sense of urgency to act, as Dr. Ford suggested it did for her. Another reason for a delay in making a formal report of sexual assault is that survivors typically aren’t treated well when they make reports of sexual assault, be those reports to colleges (Smith and Freyd 2013) or the criminal justice system (Campbell 2005). Still, when survivors do come forward—regardless of the circumstances—it makes sense to start by believing their testimonies and treating their narratives as credible evidence because false allegations are rare (Lisak et al. 2010).

To put it simply, the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh aren’t particularly shocking to sexual violence researchers. In fact, they are very well explained by sociological and psychological research.

Nicole Bedera is a PhD Student in Sociology at the University of Michigan


Ahrens, Courtney E., Giannina Cabral, and Samantha Abeling. 2009. “Healing or Hurtful: Sexual Assault Survivors’ Interpretations of Social Reactions from Support Providers.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 33(1): 81-94.

Armstrong, Elizabeth, Laura Hamilton, and Brian Sweeney. 2006. “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape.” Social Problems 52: 483-499.

Campbell, Rebecca. 2005. “What Really Happened? A Validation Study of Rape Survivors’ Help-Seeking Experiences with the Legal and Medical Systems.” Violence & Victims 20(1): 55-68.

Diefendorf, Sarah. 2015. “After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities Over the Life Course.” Gender & Society 29(5): 647-669.

Diefendorf, Sarah. 2018. “Kavanaugh’s ‘Good Guy’ Defense Reveals a Dangerous Rape Myth.” Huffington Post September 26.

Diel, Charlotte, Jonas Rees, and Gerd Bohner. 2016. “Predicting Sexual Harassment from Hostile Sexism and Short-Term Mating Orientation: Relative Strength of Predictors Depends on Situational Priming of Power Versus Sex.”

Hlvaka, Heather. 2014. “Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse.” Gender & Society 28(3): 337-358.

Lisak, David, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote. 2010. “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” Violence Against Women 16(2): 1318-1334.

Martin, Patricia Yancey. 2016. “The Rape Prone Culture of Academic Contexts: Fraternities and Athletics.” Gender & Society 30(1): 30-43.

Pascoe, C.J. 2005. “ ‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse.” Sexualities 8(3): 329-346.

Quinn, Beth A. 2002. “Sexual Harassment and Masculinity: The Power of ‘Girl-Watching.’” Gender & Society 16(3): 386-402.

Smith, Carly Parnitzke, and Jennifer J. Freyd. 2013. “Dangerous Safe Havens: Institutional Betrayal Exacerbates Sexual Trauma.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 26(1).

Swartout, Kevin M., Mary P. Koss, Jacqueline W. White, Martie P. Thompson, Antonia Abbey, Alexandra L. Bellis. 2015. “Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption.” JAMA Pediatrics 169(12): 1148-1154.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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