It doesn’t matter that Kavanaugh was young – these allegations must be taken seriously

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey says that society should no longer teach teenage boys that sexually inappropriate behaviour is okay

27 September 2018 08:34

When I was 16-years old, I started at a new school and was invited to a house party. Barely knowing anyone, I naturally accepted the invite, simultaneously nervous and excited at the opportunity to turn the acquaintances I had made so far into friendships. Throughout the night, with alcohol as my social fuel, I began to succeed in my mission to make new friends and, when my dad texted me at 3am to say he had arrived to pick me up, I was disappointed that it had to be cut short. I was also confused. Neither of us were familiar with the area and I couldn’t work out a route to the location where his car was waiting to pick me up, nor could his sat-nav identify the location of the house. To my relief, a boy at the party claimed to recognise the name of the street my dad was parked on and said he would walk me there. To my horror, I soon found out he had lied.

In the grand scheme of things, what happened down the isolated road that boy led me down eight years ago wasn’t that bad. It was just what happened; what teenage girls were – and are – conditioned to endure simply because boys haven’t learnt to behave appropriately. But what happens when we attempt to hold the boys and men that cross the lines of consent accountable?

The allegations of sexual misconduct made by Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and now a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are terrifyingly relatable. The incidents occurred either during or after parties, and his alleged actions – forcibly pinning Ford to a bed, then undressing and groping her while he covered her mouth to muffle her screams, and an incident in which Ramirez claims he thrust his genitals against her face – echo so many scenarios that women experience under the guise of drunken misunderstandings.

The allegations of sexual misconduct made against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are terrifyingly relatable.

Of course, Kavanaugh out-right denies these claims. However, if the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it is that men accused of sexual assault, particularly those in positions of power, rarely come forward, hold their hands up, and confess to their wrongdoings straightaway. Instead, they opt to release statements in which they say something along the lines of, ‘I have never sexually assaulted anyone, in high school or otherwise.’ What’s most striking in Kavanaugh’s case, though, is the fact that he repeatedly chooses to slip in reminders that the alleged instances of sexual assault supposedly occurred while he was still a student, as if crimes of this nature committed during late adolescence should be differentiated from the crimes a person might commit just a few years later.

The day after Ford’s initial allegation was made against Kavanaugh, conservative journalist Rod Dreher took to Twitter to defend him using this exact rhetoric. ‘I do not understand why the loutish drunken behaviour of a 17-year-old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53-year-old judge,’ he wrote. ‘This is a terrible standard to establish in public life.’ Applauded with over 4,000 likes and 1,000 retweets, it’s clear that many people agree with Dreher’s statement; that crimes can and should be erased by the passing of time. But surely teaching teenage boys that sexually inappropriate behaviour is okay, so long as it’s kept under wraps for a few decades, is a far worse standard for society to establish. While Kavanaugh is yet to either confess to, or be proven guilty of, any of the allegations he is facing, his Republican defenders have already begun to spin a dangerous narrative around the legitimacy of sexual assault allegations made years after incidents that occurred at high school parties.

The drunken actions of hormonal teenagers are often viewed as murky #MeToo territory, but the truth is, when it comes to unpacking the societal shift that has occurred in the wake of allegations made against Harvey Weinstein almost a year ago, a lot of conversations around consent are shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty, simply because we’ve never had them before. Alleged perpetrators of sexual assault want black-and-white rules to dictate what behaviour is deemed acceptable, an exact definition of exactly how far is too far – yet the rules are evidently bent to accommodate powerful, white men. Society will never be able to form a widespread definition of what is categorically right and wrong while the benchmark for acceptable sexual conduct is constantly in flux. The men most inclined to abuse women will never learn.

Teaching teenage boys that sexually inappropriate behaviour is okay, so long as it’s kept under wraps for a few decades, is a terrible standard for society to establish.

I deliberated for a while over whether I should open this piece with a personal anecdote, but the story feels important as I know for certain that it was a case of deception designed to coerce me into sexual activity. Quite frankly, I don’t care that the boy was only 16 at the time. If I knew it was wrong, he should have too. Likewise, if Kavanaugh really did have to forcibly silence Ford’s screams as he pinned her down to a bed at the age of 17, then that should have provided enough indication that he was acting inappropriately. After all, Trump has hailed him to be ‘one of the greatest intellects’ – held in such high esteem by the President of the United States, surely Kavanaugh can’t be that emotionally illiterate? Otherwise, Trump must be mistaken.

The problem is, women are so used to being treated like this, and men so are used to getting away with it, that events of this nature often feel insignificant. Up until a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have considered what happened to me to be sexual assault. Stories of that nature surfaced so frequently amongst my peers that it normalised that kind of behaviour and, crucially, the boy in question’s popularity never seemed to wane throughout the time I knew him – even the friends I told about the incident continued to at least pretend to still like him. It’s not that I wasn’t bothered by what happened, rather I was subconsciously led to believe that it didn’t matter.

I don’t care that the boy was only 16 at the time. If I knew it was wrong, he should have too.

If the allegations against Kavanaugh do turn out to be true, then it’s essential that they are taken seriously, otherwise it tells the entire world that the way teenage boys conduct themselves towards girls doesn’t matter. As Nichi Hodgson said in a recent DRUGSTORE CULTURE vodcast, the #MeToo movement will only have a real impact on the world if good men lead by example; this includes refusing to protect those who have engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviours. The waters of sexual consent may be murky at times, but getting away with sexual abuse shouldn’t be treated as a popularity contest. Kavanaugh’s defenders can invent as many justifications for his alleged behaviour as they like, but, ultimately, they cannot forcibly silence the voices of the women who have now found the courage to speak up.

What happened doesn’t have to continue being the norm, and I wholeheartedly believe that we’re heading to a future in which cases of sexual assault are significantly reduced. In the meantime, however, men’s excuses simply need to stop.

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