Party Affiliation Is Influencing Our Country's Views on Sexual Assault

How you view sexual assault cases may be based on how you vote. Surprised?

Jess Rodrigues

Few political events have proven just how cutthroat politics has become in the United States than September's Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. As one allegation of sexual misconduct after another emerged over the course of three weeks, the hearings became a story that steamrolled the nation with morbid fascination and fury. Images of the spectacle, amplified by protesters showing up at Congress's front door and women lining up in red and white costumes mimicking characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, emerged alongside left-wing media coverage imbued with all the necessary buzzwords—“misogyny,” “the patriarchy,” “rape culture” and “white male privilege.

The aftermath no doubt has been an increase in polarization around the topic of sexual assault and due process. Perhaps the most unfortunate side effect roughly a year after #MeToo's rise is that we aren’t anywhere closer to an answer. Instead, it seems like the weaponization of sexual assault could have negative implications on society for years to come.

Kavanaugh has spent just over a month on the bench after facing myriad allegations, which ranged from attempted rape to physical assault to being in attendance at high school parties where groups of girls were reportedly drugged and gang-raped. One of his accusers has since come forward to admit she lied about her claims that he had raped her several times in the backseat of a car, saying she made them up because she was against his nomination.

Opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation initially stemmed from fears that his vote as a Supreme Court justice could overturn women’s reproductive rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. When Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations first came to light, the public response on both sides was instantaneous and unsurprising. Progressives rushed to defend Ford, announcing with the utmost certainty that she was telling the truth, even in the absence of corroborating evidence, as pointed out by Senator Susan Collins when she voted in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Conservatives questioned whether there were ulterior motives on part of the Democrats at play, including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein's decision to not immediately disclose Ford's letter to her outlining the incident.
Instead of voicing outrage that Kavanaugh was confirmed, my fellow liberals should be disturbed that the issue of sexual assault has been wielded in such a politically divisive way.
One would expect that the fallout from this turn of events would bore dire consequences on relations between women and men, but it seems the partisan divide has suffered more. A new study conducted by Ipsos and NPR on attitudes pertaining to sexual harassment and assault found that partisanship—as opposed to one’s sex—is determining how an individual feels about issues like due process and #MeToo.

Conducted on October 22 to 24 of this year and using samples of more than 1,000 people living in the U.S., the study found that 86 percent of Republicans compared to 70 percent of Democrats believed that in cases of sexual harassment, the accused should be given the benefit of the doubt. This is a 16-percentage point partisan difference, one that is wider than the results of last year’s survey, indicating greater polarization on this issue. This difference is also wider than the seven-point difference seen between men (80 percent) and women (73 percent) who endorsed the above statement.

As well, 75 percent of Republicans versus 21 percent of Democrats say that #MeToo has gone too far. This 54-percentage point difference similarly shows that the partisan gap is larger than that between the sexes (that is, 51 percent of men compared with 36 percent of women, which is a 15-point difference).
Instead of voicing outrage that Kavanaugh was confirmed, my fellow liberals should be disturbed that the issue of sexual assault has been wielded in such a politically divisive way. Whether or not you believe Ford—or any of the other women who have come forward—you can see the disservice the resulting politicization does, not only to victims who have had old wounds torn open but to the credibility of women everywhere, and specifically those holding left-leaning political views.

A woman’s right to live free of sexual harassment and abuse should be a non-partisan issue. In hijacking this movement, the left has offered onlookers one of two options: Be supportive of women’s safety, slogans like “Believe All Women” and the Democratic Party; or criticize any of these elements with respect to the Kavanaugh case, and by definition, be against all of them. This pushes individuals who would otherwise be vocal advocates for ending sexual assault to be in opposition to supporting the cause. Pamela Anderson's recent comments on 60 Minutes Australia demonstrates one way this is manifesting.

Progressives seem to believe that supporting #MeToo means jumping on a bandwagon blindly. As someone who has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, I’ve found that questioning the #MeToo agenda is generally met with stunned silence, because in the minds of many, doing so is synonymous with condoning sexual violence. Requiring that a particular standard be met in order for allegations of sexual assault to be given weight is conflated with victim blaming. Understandably, women (and some men) have been dealing with abuse and injustice for far too long, but the solution is not to side with either the accuser or the accused based solely on political affiliation.
Those of us who are pro-choice should be denouncing this strategy as harmful because it teaches young women that capitalizing on the empathy of others is acceptable.
This divide is so extreme that reporting sexual harassment—a process that once led women to be stigmatized and shunned—is now seen as not just honorable, but noteworthy and, as I’ve written before, even glamorous. I’ve also noticed instruction manuals popping up on the internet offering women a how-to guide on ruining a man’s life by making false claims of sexual misconduct.

The Kavanaugh debacle may be dismissed by some as collateral damage in the name of a larger war, but it will be yet one more contributor to our collective, escalating sense of alienation, disdain and cultural disillusionment. Those of us who are pro-choice should be denouncing this strategy as harmful because it teaches girls and young women that capitalizing on the empathy of others is acceptable when it’s aligned with a political party you believe in.

In reality, it only fuels further misogyny and distrust of women, especially for those who come forward with allegations of sexual assault in the future. It makes a mockery of what victims have had to endure and offers few solutions in healing the divide.

Debra W. Soh holds a Ph.D. in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh