Why We Have to Talk About What Happened In High School

Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images
Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Last Saturday night, at a party hosted by a dear friend, I found myself across from two guys who are my age-ish, which is to say, Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh’s age-ish, which is to say in our early 50s.

I’d just met and instantly clicked with the wife of one of the men, a brilliant feminist filmmaker. The conversation - books and TV, politics, the generalized clusterf*ck that is parenting - left me feeling understood and connected in that way that reminds you why it’s important to slap on some concealer and drag your tired butt out to parties even if Netflix beckons. These were clearly my people.

Eventually the women drifted away, and one of the men raised the topic of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination and the accusation by a then-anonymous woman that he sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school in the '80s. (Of course, now the world knows her name: Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and since her accusation became public, two other women have come forward. Today, both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh are scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

“Listen, I’m no fan of Kavanaugh,” he said, “But when I heard it happened in high school, I was like…” he made a pfft sound and flicked his hand as if to swat away a gnat.

“Oh yeah,” agreed the other man. “It’s like, who didn’t do something stupid when they were in high school?”

My boyfriend was sitting to my left, and I felt him stiffen. He knew what was coming.

“Um, did you put your hand over a girl’s mouth to stifle her screams and try to tear her clothes off, making her fear for her life?” I asked, calm as you please, because I’ve been meditating. It really helps me to not kill people while discussing current events during these dark, tiring times. Also this was far from the first time I’ve had a version of this conversation.

Photo credit: Emily Luppino
Photo credit: Emily Luppino

“God no! I only talked to girls who liked me first,” Guy #1 said. Nice! Those girls must have been drawn to his winning self-deprecation.

“And you?” I smiled at Guy #2. “Did you attempt to rape anyone when you were in high school? Drunk or sober?” He opened his eyes wide, shut his mouth, and shook his head.

Then I waited, because this time I knew what was coming.

“Yeah, but high-school boys are idiots,” said Guy #1. “We all did dumb things.”

[Breathe in, Stephanie. You are merely the screen onto which consciousness is projected. That’s what the guy on my meditation app said that morning. Whatever that means. Exhale.]

“What dumb things did you do?” I asked, keeping my voice light and curious, rather than lawyerly. He made a reference to having partied pretty hard back in the halcyon days of John Hughes movies and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. I laughed and offered that my friends and I had gone to nightclubs and took some deeply foolish risks that only didn’t materialize because we were lucky. We were all frontal-lobe developmentally deficient teenagers at some point. Brief nostalgic chuckling ensued.

“But no rape, right?” I persisted. “You didn’t do anything that harmed someone else on purpose, correct?” I asked. They both indicated that they had not. “There’s a big difference.”

They agreed, and then unleashed yet another series of “buts,” this time about how it was such a long time ago, and anyway, who knew if it was true? He might not even be lying about the incident, one of them said, because he may truly not remember, hammered as he was. The ‘80s, amirite?

It struck me then, as it often does, how easily men, especially those who resemble many of those who’ve been called out in the #MeToo wave - mostly white, successful, socially connected - empathize with the men whose “lives are being destroyed” by women accusing them of sexual misconduct.*

My hunch is - at least for the ones who still don’t get it after someone shines a light on the nuances of a situation like this - that they may be reminded of things they’re not proud of, things that crossed a line. Probably they were much less odious things than what Kavanaugh is accused of, but that nonetheless left them with lingering feelings of shame, years later. Or perhaps they stood by when a woman was being violated in some way and did nothing.

All they seem to see in Kavanaugh is a fellow just like them, who deserves every benefit of every doubt. They don’t see the woman at all. And these are often men who would call themselves feminists, who marry badass women, who raise strong daughters, and who are capable of putting themselves in other people’s shoes, except in cases like this. I’d seen this blind spot more times than I can count, and in men I care deeply about.

It was time whip out my imaginary whiteboard and draw them a straight line of empathy to Dr. Ford, a research psychology professor at Stanford and Palo Alto College. She alleges that when she was 15 and Kavanaugh was also in high school, he held her down in a room at a house party, cranked the tunes to keep her screams from being heard, and tried to tear her clothes off. She wasn’t at this NYC party on this night, and so, in her absence, I felt I had to speak for her.

“Well, I was raped in high school and remember it vividly,” I said. “In fact, I, too, have had to talk about it in couple’s therapy, because, like this woman, it was deeply traumatic and affected my marriage. And, like her, I didn’t tell anyone at the time. Like her, I didn’t want to get in trouble for putting myself in the position where that might happen. Like her, I escaped before there was vaginal penetration, but it was pure hell. He may not remember what he did to her, but she’ll never forget it.” Many nights that men don’t remember have resulted in women having PTSD for decades after.

Then I took one last deep abdominal yoga breath and told myself that I didn’t need to apologize to these men for pursuing such an uncomfortable conversational path. As I’ve soared past my 30s and 40s, I’ve learned - thank God - that it’s not my job to constantly make men feel good. It does nobody any favors.

Long story short, they all of a sudden got very thirsty and had to find the bar, which just happened to be on the other side the party space from me. My boyfriend sighed, smiled ruefully and squeezed my hand, and then the host of the party came over to yank me onto the dance floor.

Of course, they were playing 1980s music, and of course I fell into the same moves I did when I went clubbing as teenagers with my girlfriends (this time my hip hurt, but hey…). I felt like a tired superhero, angry, but mildly elated about having said my peace.

Change doesn’t only happen when brave women like Anita Hill and Professor Blasey Ford lay themselves bare on C-SPAN for the sake of other women. It happens when other women do it wherever they find themselves. If enough of us do, perhaps one day we won’t have to anymore.

*In quotes, of course, because the men who committed the misconduct in the first place bear sole responsibility for any destruction of lives as a result of that misconduct. Blame women much?

A version of this article originally appeared on NextTribe.com.

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