Beer, Sex, and Risk: What the Kavanaugh Hearing Told Us About Risk, Power, and Who Gets To Have Them
By Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi.
During the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings about the sexual assault allegations against him, now- Justice Brett Kavanaugh found, among his obfuscations and fulminations about the damage done to his honor and that of the house of his fathers, several opportunities to aver his particular fondness for beer:
Yes, we drank beer. My friends and I, the boys and girls. Yes, we drank beer. I liked beer. Still like beer. We drank beer. The drinking age, as I noted, was 18, so the seniors were legal, [and] we — yeah, we drank beer, and I said sometimes — sometimes probably had too many beers…
Here, flippantly, I thought, “I like beer, too, and he’s kind of ruining it for me.” But this testimony—and my reaction—in the larger context of all that was on display in that hearing serve to illuminate some broader points about social risk, pleasure, power, and who we allow to experience and own these things. Sex and beer, it turns out, have quite a lot in common.
Beer (and alcohol generally) and sex are both sites where sensory pleasures (or displeasures), social and moral identities, and risk and vulnerability meet and mediate one another in numerous ways. Most of us experience these intersections as worthwhile, in spite of and sometimes because of their risk. Everyone engages in some sort of social risk activity for the sake of pleasure, social cohesion, and identity development. Risk activities are not just unavoidable—they are worthwhile, even life affirming.
As a feminist Jewish ethicist who deals with rabbinic texts, I address the socially integral character of risk in my work. I argue that rabbinic text study as portrayed in the Talmuds—without which it is difficult to conceive of Jewish identity and practice as we know it—is one such risk activity. Because the rabbis engage intimately with Torah—Divine word, whose potential universe of meaning is inexhaustable— these words, and the way the rabbis wield them in their interpretive practice, have immense power to heal or to destroy, on both personal and cosmic levels. The story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish in Bavli Bava Metzia 84a offers one example of this. Resh Lakish, a bandit, pole-vaults the Jordan river where R. Yohanan is bathing, having taken the latter for an attractive woman. R. Yohanan reforms Resh Lakish into a learned sage, and they become study partners, brothers-in-law, and intimate (possibly sexually intimate) friends. But one day, during a dispute about a matter of Torah, R. Yohanan insults and curses Resh Lakish with a reference to his scofflaw past. In consequence, by the end of the story, first Resh Lakish and then Rabbi Yohanan have died of grief.
The events of this story illustrate just how high the stakes are when one’s play with the Divine word is so closely intertwined with one’s history and identity—and how such high-stakes games are nevertheless deeply valuable to our particular lives. But they also illustrate how damaging it is to use the socially integral character of risk to uphold pernicious hierarchies and keep people in their places: Resh Lakish can never escape having been a bandit, and Rabbi Yohanan uses this against him. And we see this usage powerfully on display in the Kavanaugh saga, with beer and sex as paradigm cases. For, in a significant part of the public imaginary—one which the Kavanaugh hearings laid frighteningly bare and which, the Kavanaugh confirmation reaffirmed, retains serious practical power over many people’s lives—beer and sex are things that explain, justify, and reinforce social hierarchies, especially gendered ones, by determining exactly who may experience the risks of emotion, disinhibition, and vulnerability.
Others, including Anita Hill, have already noted that if anyone other than a white, wealthy, able-bodied cisgender, heterosexual man had conducted himself as Kavanaugh did during these hearings—indulging in emotional outbursts, and repeatedly averring his love for beer—his behavior would have been considered unprofessional and disqualifying. Similarly, if anyone other than such a man had such allegations against them—if they even carried rumors of a similar amount of consensual sexual experience around them—their nomination would have been in serious trouble. And, indeed—as will be sickeningly familiar to sexual assault survivors and their advocates—Kavanaugh supporters tried to discredit one of his accusers, Julie Sweetnick, by claiming that she enjoyed group sex. Such a person (read: who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled man) who enjoyed such risky, disinhibited behavior, has no grounds to claim violation, apparently.
This double standard, of course, also applies to the far more quotidian risk behavior of enjoying beer. We discredit survivors by questioning whether they, too, were drunk during their assault, and those of us who are socialized female internalize this. Note the contrast between Kavanaugh’s repeated admission that he drank beer in high school, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she did not tell her parents about his assault on her because she “did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys.” This scrutiny extended to other aspects of Dr. Ford’s subsequent, lifelong management of risk and pleasure: later, attorney Rachel Mitchell questioned whether the effects of the trauma (including fears of enclosed spaces, like airplanes) were really that significant given that Ford is able to manage her fear of flying for the sake of pleasurable hobbies.
Conversely, for people like Kavanaugh, the risky and disinhibiting character of intoxication—or of sexuality, or of social pressure—becomes an excuse, a waiver of moral culpability. And this is true regardless of whether the assailant or the victim engages in these risks; either way, regardless of who was experiencing these vulnerabilities, it serves to cast suspicion on the victim and excuse the assailant. Just as Kavanaugh’s display of emotion, which triggered sympathy and fellow feeling among many viewers (a phenomenon the moral philosopher Kate Manne has dubbed “himpathy”) would have, for Ford, tarred her as hysterical and unreliable, so too does his risk behavior excuse him, while any risk behavior serves to discredit Ford, Sweetnick, and fellow accuser Deborah Ramirez.
Laid out in this way, of course, this should all seem absurd. Everyone engages in risk. No one would argue that Resh Lakish and R. Yohanan shouldn’t have studied Torah, and no one should argue that subaltern folks should eschew alcohol or sex, either. Having engaged in social risk does not render anyone less harmable, nor does it make the perpetrator of that harm less guilty. But it is not, apparently, absurd to the 51 senators who voted to confirm an alleged sexual predator to the Supreme Court. And so now those of us for whom society has made risk, well, riskier, will get to shoulder yet more risk.
 Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, especially pp. 196-205. See also Manne’s New York Times op-ed of 9/26, “Brett Kavanaugh and America’s Himpathy Reckoning.”
 As the New Yorker story by Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer that broke the story of Ramirez’s allegations notes, “Ramirez said that she remained silent about the matter and did not fully confront her memories about it for years because she blamed herself for drinking too much.”
Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi is a practical ethicist who examines questions of sexual, biomedical, and environmental ethics through a Jewish lens. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.