Three years ago, I sat in a quiet library speaking with a young woman about her experience at the boarding school she attended. She was a senior and she was more than ready to graduate, she explained, because though the school had been coed for years, to her it still felt like the all-boys school it had been for most of its existence.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s all about them. It’s like we’re here for their benefit.”
Teachers and administrators at the school described her as a student leader, a young woman with a promising future. But as I listened to her explain her school’s social hierarchy and culture, her promising future seemed to have less to do with the elite education she’d received than the spirit of survival she had needed to develop in her four years there.
I spoke with the young woman in the library while I was researching a novel about misogyny and rape culture at boarding schools. Her experiences mirrored those coming to light from prep schools across the country. The most prominent recent example, of course, is the allegation from Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of pinning her to a bed and covering her mouth to muffle her screams during a party they both attended when he was a student at Georgetown Prep, an elite boarding school in Washington, D.C.
Once the allegations were made public, defenses of Kavanaugh rolled in quickly, characterizing the event, if it happened, as a youthful indiscretion. All too often people dismiss this kind of behavior as just “boys being boys.” That old adage suggests the behavior is innocent. Kavanaugh himself has joked, “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.” The subtext is that boys will be boys—and we’re not supposed to talk about what they do.
What some boys do at these elite private schools might be as seemingly benign as pranking a school meeting by performing sexually charged dances. Or it might be, as an alumna from another boarding school detailed to me during my research, a rug in the cafeteria that she said only seniors were allowed to stand on and from which, allegedly, boys called out rankings of the attractiveness of underclass girls on a scale of one to 10 as they walked by. Or, more disturbingly, it might mean forcing a 15-year-old girl to perform oral sex on five members of her school’s hockey team, an incident that reportedly took place at Milton Academy in Massachusetts during the 2004–05 academic year, according to Vanity Fair.
Misogyny is ubiquitous. It is deeply entrenched in these school communities, and yet many young men can’t see the water they’re swimming in for what it is. They seem to have no understanding of the harm this culture of misogyny causes. As one alumnus from St. Paul’s School quipped when he heard about the alleged incident with the ice-hockey players at Milton, “The question is: Did they win?”
The joke I remember most clearly from my own ninth-grade year at an all-boys prep school didn’t come from one of my classmates or an upperclassman. It came from a guidance counselor. He was giving a guest lecture in one of my classes about how to study more effectively, and told a story about a young man who was supposed to be doing his homework but instead looked out the window and watched a girls’ cross-country team run by. The guidance counselor acted out the scene for us with grossly exaggerated caricature, pantomiming the teenager watching the girls’ breasts bounce as they ran by. He laughed when he finished, and all 20 or so of us in the room laughed along with him. This was how he got the guys in the room to trust him. By telling a crass, objectifying joke, yes, but also by implying that we should see women as nothing more than a distraction; we had more important things to do.
Later that same year, I heard a guy in my gym class talking about how to decide which of the two girls who liked him he was going to invite to the dance. It would be the one who would sleep with him, or, as he said, would let him “fuck the shit out of her” and “fuck her brains out.” These were phrases I’d heard so often I’d become numb to their meaning. They only stood out to me because they were said out loud on the soccer field instead of sotto voce at a party.
In my ninth-grade algebra class, one of the students made lewd, sexually suggestive drawings of our math teacher, a woman, and passed them around the room for us to see. Too many of us laughed along with him—that’s probably how he got caught. Our teacher stood over him and shook the paper, chastising him. He started to cry, right there in his seat. He wasn’t used to getting caught.
We were in ninth grade. We were 14 years old. We didn’t know what we were talking about. It was only “boys being boys.” But it was also boys being deeply misogynistic. If this is how we spoke about girls behind their back, how did we think about them later, when they sat next to us at the dance? How men talk about women affects the way men see and relate to women. Violent language can lead to violent action. Just because no women overheard our conversation on the soccer field doesn’t mean that conversation was harmless. We just didn’t have to experience any kind of accountability for the harm it could cause. But cultures of misogyny do have consequences.
In 2016, Chessy Prout told her story of being raped while she was a student at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. When the school’s tradition of a senior salute—in which senior boys were in competition with one another to try to sleep with underclass girls—made headlines, there was a national outcry about a school that would allow such a dangerous tradition to continue. And yet, when a reporter for Vice, Susan Zalkind, bumped into the man Prout says raped her, Owen Labrie, on a train to Boston, despite his mandated curfew, he showed no remorse and, in fact, was defiant, calling a Vanity Fair article about him a “hit piece.” (Labrie was convicted of a felony charge of using a computer to solicit a minor for sex.) He was visiting his girlfriend at Harvard and had taken her out to brunch, he told Zalkind. That he was breaking the terms of the court ruling didn’t put him in the wrong, he suggested; the people who were making his life difficult were in the wrong. Though his attitude surprised Zalkind, it echoes the tone offered by school administrators and others who worry about second chances for boys credibly accused of sexual wrongdoing—and suggest that these boys deserve more dignity and agency than their victims.
All too often the schools themselves shelter these boys from a greater understanding of accountability, therefore protecting and tacitly, if not explicitly, endorsing misogyny. These aren’t just boys, the thinking goes; they are future men of influence who will become leaders of one kind or another. The decision of the new president, Reverend James R. Van Dyke, at Kavanaugh’s alma mater to release his recent letter reflects this kind of forward-thinking protectionism. “Prep is a wonderful place, a wonderful school, a wonderful community,” he says in the letter. He didn’t address Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, or any other details that have emerged from his youth. Ignoring these more difficult topics sends a message to the young students of Georgetown Prep who are listening for how their school’s leaders view such grave allegations. Silence can be quite meaningful.
The boys there face a predictable future. The boys who joke about women in locker rooms, the boys who talk about how important it is to try to sleep with a girl after prom, the boys who assault girls, the boys who see women as hindrances to the future they feel entitled to—they all become men. Boys who attend elite prep schools go on to elite colleges. They become government officials, business leaders, possibly even Supreme Court justices. These men carry with them the prejudices, jokes, and attitudes toward women that shape decisions about policy and the general welfare of the public. And some of them never learn, as the young woman in the library told me, that the world they have been given is not all about them.