Lionel Shriver

In defence of women (and why I ain’t no little bird)

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

Following Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony about being sexually assaulted by the US Supreme Court nominee when he was 17, numerous women on American news reported that listening to her terrible story made them cry.

I didn’t cry. Indeed, my reaction to Ford’s statement was at such odds with the garment–rending anguish of my fellow Democrats that I had to wonder whether either I’d missed something or maybe there was something wrong with me. So I just read the entire transcript. I hadn’t missed anything.

As for whether there’s something wrong with me, I’ll leave that for others to judge. But here’s how I’ve parsed a tale that roiled my country for weeks and which, even after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Democrats in Congress are not letting go.

Purportedly, at age 15, Ford was pushed into a bedroom at a teenage gathering by two boys. One laid on top of her and began ‘running his hands’ over her body and ‘grinding into’ her. She yelled, and he put a hand over her mouth. The other boy sat down on the mattress twice. She escaped to a bathroom across the hall.

Although the dump-Trump media all reference this incident as ‘attempted rape’, nothing in Ford’s account substantiates that her assailant had any such intention. She was afraid she’d be raped, and that part, for a young girl, is likely true. However briefly, she was also afraid she’d be killed — I’ll barely buy that — but nobody tried to murder her, and they didn’t. The boys locked the bedroom door, but on the inside; she was not locked in. While Ford claims Kavanaugh tried to remove her clothes, he didn’t. Her testimony doesn’t cite so much as a strap being tugged off her shoulder. If she escaped from two older boys, they weren’t trying very hard to detain her. The boys’ laughter at her expense would certainly have felt painful; nevertheless: welcome to high school. Finally, given how little actually went down, that experience probably lasted all of two minutes.

Now, I wouldn’t call that an account of nothing. One recent loss I rue is our ability to categorise any sexual indignity in the medium range. It either didn’t happen at all, or it was the most horrifying defilement in the history of the universe.

Still, I am baffled why this abbreviated encounter would traumatise anyone so intensely for the following four years that it gets the blame for poor academic performance and chronically dysfunctional relationships with men. Nor do I understand being ‘haunted’ by it for decades thereafter, and suffering as a result from ‘anxiety, phobia, PTSD-like symptoms’, ‘claustrophobia’ and ‘panic’ into one’s fifties.

Droves of Democrats have hailed Ford as a hero for her courage as a ‘survivor’. But I fear the deferent and visibly fragile academic with a high, mousy voice makes a lousy role model for young women today, who are too often fed the message that weakness is their greatest strength.

In Ford’s defence, this self-described ‘anxious-type person’ is a product of her era. Perhaps in reaction to 1960s libertinism, from the 1980s onwards we’ve been singularly obsessed with sexual abuse, particularly of children. The end of kids playing outside, the draconian restrictions levied on sex offenders who’ve served their time, the deluge of incest memoirs, the plethora of fictional villains who’ve been sexual predators and/or paedophiles, the day-care scandals in which small children were coached to indict innocent minders for unspeakable things, and the ‘recovered memories’ that destroyed whole families when young adults became convinced that their parents raped them as babies. Exposure of depravity in the Catholic church has further ramped up the fixation, because that abuse was real. We forget, but #MeToo is a reprise; sexual harassment ballooned into a huge issue in the 1990s.

Collectively, then, Ford’s culture has encouraged her not to put that incident in perspective and get on with her life, but to treat the assault as a precious commodity — as a means of commanding sympathy and special treatment, and as a source of identity. No wonder the experience of being pinned to a mattress has loomed only larger in her mind through the years, when across those same years both the news and the arts have been consumed with sexual victimhood.

Hey, I have my own sexual abuse story, and it’s way worse than Christine Ford’s. You’ll have to take my word for it — or not — because it’s my business. But it irks me to feel obliged to trot out my Official Abused Person credentials, without which I’ve apparently no right to pass comment. The last year, that’s been the take-away: every woman needs a tale of sexual violation to secure standing. No ‘survival’, and you have to shut up.

But I do have standing. Thus I can testify that what happened to me does not haunt my adulthood unduly, does not explain all my problems, and did not result in a host of ineradicable neuroses. I don’t mean that others who still battle demons as a consequence of sexual trauma simply need to suck it up. I mean only to establish that moving on is possible, and to suggest that we start celebrating resilience as well as baring our scars.

Besides, all sins of the flesh are not equally grave. I’m betting that plenty of men also found Christine Ford’s testimony overwhelmingly underwhelming. In this climate, they’d be foolish to say so publicly, but that doesn’t change what they think.

That awful expression ‘rape culture’ puts penetration at knifepoint and unwanted knee-touching under the same indiscriminate umbrella. Such zero-tolerance levelling is not in women’s long-term interest. It portrays us as hypersensitive if not hysterical, dangerous to consort with and lacking in common sense. Democrats’ pumping up of Ford’s moderately unpleasant story into a tear-inducing tragedy reinforces the worst of stereotypes: that we women are little birds so terrifyingly delicate that a mere brush against adversity leaves us broken-winged for life.

I ain’t no little bird.

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