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What Does an Allegation Mean When You Own Up to It First?

There’s a reason Cory Booker’s sexual misconduct story sounds so different from Brett Kavanaugh’s

When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker demanded an investigation into the “serious and credible” assault allegations levied against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, he waltzed himself in front of an alt-right firing squad.

Trouble is, Booker is being called out as a hypocrite for having a less-than-perfect past with at least one woman, which has given President Trump and other conservatives an opportunity to suggest that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw FBI investigations around. The other trouble is, Booker himself is said to be eyeing a presidential run.

The head-scratcher here is that the only reason anyone knows about “the incident” (which is hardly an incident at all — more on that in a bit) is because Booker surfaced it himself as a mea culpa in 1992. All of which raises some questions: How should men deal with any past incidents of sexual misconduct, regardless of severity? And does their honesty and openness grant them any sort of immunity from blowback?

Booker’s ‘Wake-Up Call’

Here’s the timeline: In 1992, as a student at Stanford and a columnist at the Stanford Daily, Booker penned a column called “So Much for Stealing Second.” In it, he recounts a New Year’s Eve in 1984, at age 15, when, as the ball dropped, he leaned over to hug a female friend and was met by her with an “overwhelming kiss.” They fumbled on the bed, and he recalls debating his next move as if it were a game of chess:

I slowly reached for her breast. After having my hand pushed away once, I reached my “mark.” Our groping ended soon and while no “relationship” ensued, a friendship did. You see, the next week in school she told me that she was drunk that night and didn’t really know what she was doing. While she liked me a lot, she said she just wanted to be friends. I have gotten used to those five words, but that’s another column.

Ever since puberty, I remember receiving messages that sex was a game, a competition. Sexual relations were best achieved through luck, guile, strategy or coercion. Another friend in high school counseled me on the importance of drinking: “With liquor you’ll get to bed quicker,” she said. Thinking about her statement back then, I realized its veracity. Coming to college, I was immersed in the same sort of attitudes. “What do you think happened? She invited me back to her room at 3 a.m.” “I’ve got to find a way to snatch that snatch.” “The best thing for that girl would be to be tied down and screwed.” Out of context these statements seem shocking, but in context they were barely noticed.

Booker goes on to explain that he eventually gets a “wake-up call” about these toxic attitudes toward women after working as a peer counselor for rape victims, hearing a “deluge” of personal accounts that stay with him and change him forever.

As the Washington Post notes, conservative op-eds have balked that Booker isn’t giving Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt. If Booker had a wake-up call post-grope, and “by all accounts Kavanaugh has had great relationships with women in the years since high school,” aren’t they the same breed of man? Both bad, both reformed?

Not necessarily. For one thing, Booker is admitting to his own incident on his own without anyone, to our knowledge, coming forward first. Kavanaugh denies being guilty of anything but liking a good time with his first true love — beer.

Second, the details of the incidents are hardly apples to apples. The multiple allegations against Kavanaugh from three women include forcing Ford into a bedroom, pinning her down while another guy watched, groping her over her clothes, grinding against her, trying to pull her clothes off and covering her mouth when she screamed. Then there’s the allegation that he shoved his penis into Deborah Ramirez’s face at Yale. Then there’s Julie Swetnick’s sworn declaration that Kavanaugh and his friends would get girls drunk and line up to assault them one by one.

That makes grabbing a boob at 15 look more like TP-ing someone’s house.

Learning From a Teachable Moment

But third, Booker demonstrates a better understanding 25 years ago of what we now call rape culture than most grown men do talking about it today.

To be clear, I’m not all that interested in parsing the degree to which Booker can be believed, nor can we know the anonymous woman’s accounting of this. All politicians should be taken with a huge block of salt. What’s more, if there’s more to the story, and especially should Booker make an official announcement to run in 2020, I suspect we’ll find out. But Booker has a solid record of defending reproductive rights, including access to birth control and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That makes it far more surprising a twist if he’s a no-good sleaze than finding out a guy like Kavanaugh, who allegedly mouthed the word “bitch” when he saw Hillary Clinton around the same time Booker was writing that column, turned out to be one too.

Much has been discussed about the lackluster-to-decent apologies from men who’ve “been MeToo-ed” — the Kevin Spaceys, Harvey Weinsteins, Louis C.K.’s, Al Frankens and the like. And we’ve written before about to what extent politicians should be open about their own skeletons. In my view, Booker’s misstep — if it’s accurate and true — is hardly more than a misstep. It doesn’t indicate an inability to hold office. In his recounting, it’s standard-issue fumbling, a teachable moment for teenage boys eager to sprint to the next base.

In today’s world, we teach that consent must happen before a hand reaches toward a body, but in 1984, that was nowhere near any part of the conversation. And his story still doesn’t come close to the many scenes in popular films of the era that are more or less rape passed off as teen sex hijinks. That makes his accounting at that time look prescient, not sleazy.

Witnesses to Our War Story

Still, it’s one detail in particular that does strike me as authentic about Booker’s recounting. In my long-standing experience, the men who actually walk the walk of treating women equally and fairly have often worked as counselors on rape hotlines, or have intimate histories with women who’ve shared their past assault with them.

Two past boyfriends of mine in particular had girlfriends before me who’d been assaulted, and they told me that hearing their stories, and seeing the lifelong damage it had inflicted on their ability to trust men and have healthy intimate relationships, had changed them forever, too. Both had either worked answering phones at rape hotlines or participated in support networks for women. They simply sat there taking in their stories without scrutiny or defensiveness. It was this particularly uncomfortable experience that had been so eye-opening for them, and it deeply influenced their treatment of women for the better.

Sure, that doesn’t make them perfect feminist heroes or incapable of the worst of it. But there’s something to be said for men who are willing to bear witness to women’s experiences in this way. It’s incredibly similar to the education men get volunteering as abortion clinic escorts, and the men who’ve created sexual assault survivor support networks for women where none existed in their communities. They become witnesses to the war story of half the population hiding in plain sight. That story is there all the time, in every direction, and any man could look and listen if he wanted. Viewed in that light, maybe the real question we should be asking more often is why most of them — even the supposedly good ones — don’t.