by Tali Lebowitsch
Earlier this month, Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court. His confirmation followed an intense, highly-publicized emotional rollercoaster that has made him one of the most controversial figures talked about right now. It is no doubt that his appointment was received with immense outrage especially from the left side of the political spectrum. Besides the fact that he is incredibly conservative on a variety of controversial topics, he was confirmed following multiple allegations of sexual assault. The most notable and highly publicized allegations came from a women by the name of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. She was even asked to come and testify against him in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a hearing that was broadcast to the entire world.
What most stood out to me about Dr. Ford and her allegations was that the incident she came forward about occurred in high school, when she and Kavanaugh were both 17, an age many people at this school currently are. I was immediately intrigued. The alleged sexual assault happened at a high school party in 1983. Hearing about these allegations I immediately began to reflect on me and my friends experiences being females in high school currently. I thought about the generation that Brett Kavanaugh grew up in and I began to wonder how the party culture in high school at that time has changed and how it has remained the same in high school party culture now. With the new development of feminist movements, such as #MeToo, it seems that the predatory environment that was incredibly common in the 80’s should be diminished. However, when taking closer examination into the high school party scene of today it is not difficult to find underlying themes that are uncannily similar to those described by Dr. Ford.
I began trying to learn more about the unspoken sexual assault atmosphere that surrounded the high school parties of the 1980’s. To gain insight I decided to speak to my mother, someone who attended high school from 1985-1989, very much in the generation of Brett Kavanaugh, and confirmed that Dr. Fords story was one that was all too familiar during her time in high school. When speaking about her experience, she stated that “movies like ‘Sixteen Candles reflected what we found in high school,” referencing the scene in the popular John Hughes rom-com where a drunk girl slipping in and out of consciousness was passed around between a group of boys that was ultimately turned into a sort of hilarious sublot in the movie. She elaborated by saying “nobody really taught you anything about consent” and that “as a girl, if you were drunk it was your problem what happened to you; you could expect it be blamed on you and to not receive support from other students or the administration.”
This closely aligns with the story of Dr. Ford, a story where the perpetrator faced no consequences and support could not be expected from fellow peers, thus leading to silence from the victim as she felt unsafe and uncomfortable. The question of why Dr. Ford remained silent until this point if the assault really did impact her so much has been asked countless times by Kavanaugh supporters, as a point to undermine the reliability of Dr. Fords testament. But considering the context of the assault and the general population’s attitude at the time it is not difficult to understand why one wouldn’t come forward. As seen in many movies of the time period, including Sixteen Candles, rape by fellow peers at parties and unconsensual intercourse that involved intoxication was considered almost laughable, not something to be taken seriously or deemed as detrimental to the mental and physical health of the victim.
When asked about the most traumatizing part of the whole experience, in front of the Senate committee, Dr. Ford tearfully recalled it was the fact that Brett Kavanaugh and his friend who attacked Ford together “were laughing with each other.” She continues, “…I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed…Two friends having a really good time with one another.” This exemplifies the mindset of the perpetrators often involved in these incidents; it was something that was simply amusing and the thought of just how harmful it would be to the victim was not even something that crossed the mind. You could also not expect any action to be taken, or for people to listen and believe you. There is a large sense of shame and self-blame involved, a haunting feeling that takes years to overcome. Dr. Ford continued to recollect in her jarring testament, “…I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details…I tried to convince myself that because Brett did not rape me, I should be able to move on and just pretend that it had never happened.”
Hearing my mother recount the rapacious atmosphere of parties in the 80’s I already started to note common similarities to things I myself have witnessed during my time in high school, and decided to gain further insight by speaking to some people my age who might have experienced such incidents. I started by speaking to a close friend, one who recalls her own personal experience with unwanted sexual advances from people she considered friends at parties, and how a culture that has remained, until recently, unwaveringly silent over how to treat such unwelcomed approaches made her struggle to come to terms with that reality. She recalls, “I didn’t want to be subjected to these inexcusable grabs and ‘slips’ and neither did my friends, yet I didn’t feel secure or educated enough to do more than laugh these motions off. If we did more we were seen as over dramatic because for some reason we didn’t desire random teenage hands all over our bodies when least expected.” There are currently still stark parallels with the culture Dr. Ford and my mother described, a culture where there is not enough self-empowerment or security for women to speak up for themselves and defend themselves when subjected to uncomfortable and unwanted situations. There are even some stories shared with me during my research that described scenarios of straight up violence. Stories such as, “I was leaning against a wall at a party and he came over and pressed his entire body against mine and I was pinned there for minutes just struggling and asking him to get off while he just breathed into my face” or going in for a hug and getting undesired kissing in return that doesn’t stop after relentless pleading, the list goes on. These are only two of countless anecdotes confided in me. One common thread running through these stories is the presence of alcohol. A female who I spoke to expressed this sentiment by stating that “there is a common trend of using a substance or setting as an excuse to blatantly take advantage of girls.” Clearly that is one thing that has not changed since the 80’s Listening to these stories led me to the conclusion that unfortunately much has remained the same in the world of high school party culture since the time of Brett Kavanaugh.
The research I conducted unearthed an unsettling reality: the party culture that surrounded Brett Kavanaugh and his allegations is one that has remained for the most part unchanged in the high school scene of today, 35 years later. Coming to terms with this raises many questions. One that especially stands out is: If externally our country seems to be going through a women’s empowerment revolution, why has the treatment of women not changed? The context of the incidents of today is one that champions women coming out and publicly sharing what they have been through; one of no longer tolerating these demeaning experiences any more. It now becomes apparent that the discourse is further off from actuality than we would like to think it is. There has not yet been a translation of what #MeToo stands for to the actual real life scenarios that women are subjected to. It becomes ever clearer that is time to make a real difference; to turn words into action, so that in 35 years we will not be hearing the same stories.