I’ve been looking for the words on this issue all week. Did Brett Kavanaugh assault Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when they were teenagers? It certainly matters.
Women who are assaulted as teenagers need to be heard and heralded so that others can find strength in their moments of crisis. There is too much accommodation of “boys will be boys” and excusing away vile behavior as some sort of rite of adulthood. Just because you partied hard with your frat doesn’t make the behavior at those parties right. Just because other girls in your school were treated the same way by boys doesn’t make it normal.
But I want to set aside the obvious issues of sexual assault here (a. there are so many strong voices for that already; b. that is not my story to tell). I want to get to this tangential conversation on normalizing behavior, a conversation that is all too important yet all too difficult to verbalize.
Let me present a personal framework because, as a female who once went to high school, I speak from a position of truth-to-power on teenage boys, parties, and what happens there. Don’t we all…
When I was 17
I had a boyfriend who, late one night, when he had had some alcohol, and I had not, tried to “go further” than I wanted to (do kids these days even say that?). He tried; I pushed him away. He tried again; I pushed him away. He may have tried a third time. It’s irrelevant.
What matters to me is that he got the message.
He got annoyed, but he stopped. He was annoyed because we had gone into a room alone exactly to see “how far” we would go. We were both normal, hormonal, sexually curious creatures at 16 or 17. As far as they felt to my peers and me, power dynamics were such that he wanted to see how far he could go, while I wanted to see how far I would go. It’s a key difference, but not one that I think makes him or I any more in the blame here. We both tested limits and stopped when I said so.
That’s how it should always work. (Shout it from the rooftops!)
Later that week, however, he dumped me. He dumped me explicitly because I “wouldn’t put out.” I was shocked; I was embarrassed, as all teenagers are when stories get out involving them and sex, good or bad. But most of all, I was pissed!
I was absolutely furious!
This guy, who I had thought was so respectable for stopping when I said so, who heard “no means no,” flipped the script and publicly blamed me for standing up for myself. I was thoroughly teenaged-heartbroken, but I was also forced into some serious teenaged-soul-searching to decide how to handle the rejection. Because that’s what it felt like, right? In claiming ownership over my own body, I got rejected. (See: problem forced upon girls everywhere!) In so many situations, I can imagine where this could have sent me down a different path than the one I chose; I’m glad I didn’t.
Instead, I look back on that moment as one of the key feminist breakthroughs in my adolescence. If I were a bit braver or louder, it perhaps would have been my radical, bra-burning moment, my feminist-manifesto, call-to-action speech moment. Instead, I decided I had been right to control my body, and I would keep on controlling it, no matter who asked, or how, or how much alcohol was involved.
I turned his attempt to tear me down into a moment of empowerment. I never looked back.
There are 2 lessons here.
What matters when I think back on that night, particularly as it concerns current events, is that my guy stopped. And you know what, I’m pretty sure most guys do. As Monica Hesse recently wrote, most men of all ages, even partying hard and hormonal, do not force themselves on women. Those who do have no one to blame but themselves. It’s not the alcohol or the age or the allure of the girl; it’s only the kind of person who thinks rules don’t apply who can so easily turn them off in his head.
Boys, actually, will not be boys. Most boys are trying to sort through the mystery of hormones and sex and life the same as girls; they simply want to be good men.
This gets to my second point.
There is this big cover story that it’s perfectly normal for teenaged hormones to manifest as something uncontrollable. The cover story suggests that at every college party where drinking leads to sexual aggression, harassment, and assault, everyone is really okay in the end; every teenage night out where healthy sexual curiosity becomes date rape is just somehow a misunderstanding; girls drinking and being forced into unwanted sexual situations is the same as boys drinking and forcing those situations.
None of this is true.
This is the culture that prompted that boyfriend twenty years ago to create his hyper-masculine, anti-woman storyline to explain his lack of “conquest.” High-school male culture anticipated reports of his sexual superiority, regardless of my resistance. The blame had to fall somewhere, and I was the easy target. It was the girl’s fault; her problem; her negativity that ruined the “normal” moment. By circulating a story — perceived as negative — about my sexuality, he was telling other guys that there was something wrong with me.
That is a heavy burden to throw at a teenaged girl.
Today, I step back to see the perverse positivity of this. The story actually served me well — I wanted control of my body, I felt vindicated in having done so, and I was free to take it or leave it as I liked from then on. But the story fits into the same cover stories we hear in the news today. And it highlights the pressure on girls to conform and on boys to perform.
Change can only happen if and when adults start promoting, supporting, and verbalizing that the dominant teenage culture is actually supportive, positive, and gender-equal. Stop saying “boys will be boys” as if that means anything other than “who cares what boys do?” To echo the old Rogers & Hammerstein line, “You’ve got to be taught…”
Teenage decency continues somehow to be deemed a sub-culture, despite being the majority culture. Until we change that story, we’ll be arguing 30-year-old assault cases forever because those assaults will continue to be normalized by the adults who should know better.