“Blackout Brett” and our binge drinking culture of male impunity
As more women come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Republican Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it is becoming evident that alcohol played an integral role in the culture of the prep school and college that Kavanaugh attended.
The moniker “Blackout Brett” is being tossed around with abandon on Twitter, and a breathtakingly detailed account of Kavanaugh’s drinking in his Yale Law School days comes courtesy of the man himself. In a 2015 speech to Yale Law grads Kavanaugh ruefully recalls “a night of Boston bar-hopping” that ended with he and his classmates “falling out of the bus.” (This is one of the tamer stories. Kavanaugh also tells the tale of the friend who fell on a table and broke it, only for the young men’s heroic professor to step up and get more beer for the lads after the bartender refused to serve them.)
As an alcoholic, I instinctively recoil at attempts to characterize Kavanaugh as a blackout drunk, as if a history of alcohol abuse somehow impugns one’s character. I don’t think it does.
But as a survivor of sexual assault who wasn’t believed because of my ongoing alcohol abuse, I know who stands to face the consequences of our society’s permissive attitude toward drinking to excess: women, and in particular sexual assault victims.
The New Yorker’s Sunday evening report about an alleged victim of Kavanaugh’s predatory behaviour states that Ramirez “was at first hesitant to speak publicly, partly because her memories contained gaps because she had been drinking.” This is unsurprising: women face an insurmountably high burden of proof when we talk about our assaults, and the slightest bit of alcohol in our system can be grounds for the dismissal of our claims.
The report goes on to detail how Ramirez was targeted in a drinking game that night and subsequently taunted sexually when she had lost control of the better part of her faculties. This was likely no accident: alcohol is the most potent of date rape drugs, and we have seen time and time again that whether she was encouraged to drink to excess or whether she got there on her own, when a woman loses control, the men around her often cease to display any semblance of respect for her bodily autonomy.
It is widely accepted that women metabolize alcohol differently than men, which only complicates the situation. As men who have been taught that their pleasure takes precedence over women’s pain get drunker, their inhibitions lowered, women often become incapacitated. This sets the stage for the slew of horrifying assaults on incapacitated women that have only recently become a concern, but which have certainly been happening ever since binge drinking at high schools, colleges, and well beyond became socially acceptable.
As an alcoholic woman, this terrain is particularly difficult for me to navigate. Going back to my own assault on a frozen February night, I remember trying to go drink for drink with my friend. I began drinking faster and faster, as an alcoholic does, and at some point, I lost control. I got sick and went to sleep in my friend’s bed. That should have been the end of the story: slightly embarrassing to be sure, but fairly characteristic for me at the time.
I woke up at 4am to my friend’s boyfriend doing unspeakable things to me, things I had never asked for, and kept trying to make him stop. He wouldn’t stop so I left. In my disorientation, I told another friend what had happened. She told her boyfriend and soon enough everyone in our friend group knew, and I was getting unwanted calls from my assailant and his girlfriend asking me to explain myself. Did he even remember? He was just as drunk as me, so I never found out if he actually believed his claims of innocence or not.
It turns out it didn’t matter: though my experience had been made public against my will, I lost every single one of the friends involved in that incident. These were friends that had known me since elementary school, who probably would have put their names down if I ever needed someone to vouch for me as Kavanaugh did when he produced his infamous list of 65 women. I learned that these people would vouch for me as long as I didn’t find myself in an unsafe situation as a result of my drinking.
Like so many other victims of assault, I am seeing my own assault mirrored in the reaction to the allegations against Kavanaugh. “Blackout Brett” is not guilty because he doesn’t need to remember, and his accuser is guilty because she doesn’t completely remember. The moment I took that first sip, I was easy prey for a group of friends that drank just as I did, but who didn’t make the mistake of being unable to defend themselves when drinking. What happened to me could have easily happened to any one of the women there that night.
The subject of women’s drinking had a moment a few years ago with a spate of women’s drinking memoirs such as Jowita Bydlowska’s excellent 2013 book Drunk Mom and Sarah Hepola’s stunning Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. Hepola is fond of quoting an expert in the field of blackouts, who says that “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.” I can certainly attest to this statement, and I know a lot of other women who can too.
It seems our society needs to revisit these topics, and also explore more deeply the reasons that women drink, which are arguably more complicated than men’s reasons. We often drink to cope with the everyday indignations of being a woman in the world, a world that doesn’t see us as fully human. Our culture aggressively encourages women to pick up the bottle, and then blames us when we cannot stop. We then drink to forget this blame, and the cycle of victimization continues.
When Kavanaugh made his speech about binge drinking to that group of Yale graduates, it was under the cover of the cultural assumption that this is normal behaviour for young men. We don’t often talk about the women who have had to suffer because some rowdy boys punished us for trying to join in the fun.
I believe Ford, and I believe Ramirez, and we cannot blame them if some of Kavanaugh’s would-be accusers don’t believe themselves. Women who drink have been taught to shoulder the consequences for what happens to them, even if these consequences are a crime. We need to ensure this is not the reality for the women who come after us, and a change in how we regard drinking culture should be integral to this work.