Brett Kavanaugh and the Revealing Logic of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’

The discussion now swirling around the Supreme Court nominee asks an insidious question: Is sexual assault simply the way of the world?

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the third day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 6, 2018. (Alex Wroblewski / Reuters)

There’s been a lot of talk, over the weekend, about youthful indiscretion—about kids being kids, about boys being boys, about the liminal space that separates adulthood and its stark accountabilities from the heady years that precede them. The discussion’s most recent round has come because, on Sunday, a research psychologist and professor named Christine Blasey Ford revealed that she was the author of the letter that had been sent to Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Anna Eshoo earlier this summer: a document addressing the character of the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

In the letter, Ford—she is speaking publicly only after an initial, and eminently reasonable, reluctance to come forward—alleges that Kavanaugh, when he was a 17-year-old in the early 1980s, sexually assaulted her. She was 15 at the time. She alleges further—the details of this allegation, as they will be with any such claim of sexual violence, are crucial—that Kavanaugh, “stumbling drunk” at a party, corralled Ford into a bedroom, with a friend of his, and then pinned her down onto a bed. That he groped her, grinding his body against hers. That he tried to remove her clothes, and then the bathing suit she wore underneath them. That he put his hand over her mouth, to muffle her screams.

So great was the violence of it all, Ford recalled to The Washington Post, that, at one point, she began to fear that “he might inadvertently kill me.”

Ford’s account of the event has been corroborated by her husband; by a therapist, with whom she discussed the alleged event in 2012; by the notes of a 2013 therapy session, which refer to a “rape attempt” Ford survived as a teenager; and by a polygraph test Ford took on the advice of a lawyer who knows the doubt with which the world, still, reflexively responds to the recollections of women. What the professor describes, in her letter to her Congressional representatives and again to the Post, is by no means the typical stuff of mere youthful indiscretion. What Ford is talking about—what she has been talking about, for years—is not the behavior of kids simply being kids, boys simply being boys. What she is alleging, instead, is cruelty; it is entitlement; it is violence; it is assault.

You would not know that, however, from some of the public reactions to Ford’s allegations. The White House—which of course has multidimensional interests in downplaying negative claims about Kavanaugh, particularly those involving sexual misconduct—has thus far defended its nominee in the broadest of terms, claiming its support for Kavanaugh and otherwise offering “no additional comment.” (Donald Trump’s evergreen advice on countering allegations of misconduct: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”) A lawyer close to the White House, interviewed by Politico, reiterated the idea that, regardless of Ford’s claims, Kavanaugh’s nomination would not be withdrawn. On the contrary: “If anything, it’s the opposite,” the lawyer told the reporter Burgess Everett, suggesting that the White House has been, actually, galvanized by the allegations against its nominee. “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.”

We can all be accused of something: It’s a neat rhetorical trick. It shifts the accountability from the one person to the many; it claims expansive empathy while revealing just how limited a resource, in the government of the people, empathy really is. The comment rejects the predictably partisan defense of Kavanaugh—the allegation of misconduct, The Weekly Standard summed it up last week, as “an achingly obvious attempt to libel a good man for rank political ends”—in favor of another one: the notion that, precisely because of the allegation against him, the judge deserves to be defended. (Every man.) The White House, far from treating the allegations of one of its constituents with any degree of stated concern, will apparently push even harder for its nominee—on the grounds that the nominee in question, bedeviled with “accusations,” could be anyone.

Or, rather: He could be any man. And here is the deeper venality of the boys-being-boys defense: It normalizes. It erases the specific details of Christine Blasey Ford’s stated recollections with the soggy mop of generalized male entitlement. What red-blooded guy, after all, its logic assumes, hasn’t done, in some way, the kinds of things Ford has described? Who, as a younger version of himself, hasn’t gotten stumble-drunk, pinned down a woman, groped her, tried to undress her, and then, when she resisted, held his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams? (“It was drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven,” the Fox News columnist Stephen Miller tweeted, derisively.)

Once again, in much of the public discussion, the empathy settles on the man accused. There but for the grace, etc.: If youthful indiscretions like that are allowed to affect the fate of a basketball-coaching, soup-kitchen-volunteering, daughter-nurturing, carpool-driving Supreme Court nominee, whose fortunes wouldn’t be affected? “We’ve now gone from ‘he did this terrible thing at 17’ to ‘he’s a man who treated a woman like that,’” the professor and author Tom Nichols tweeted on Sunday. “Man, I hope all the people who are making this case had spotless lives at 17, because I sure as hell didn’t.”

Nichols has since deleted the tweet; in erasing it, though, he reiterated the general point: “All of you arguing that what someone did at 17 is relevant when you’re 53 better to be [sic] ready *always* to die on that hill, because it’s going to be the new rule. Don’t complain later when the revolution eats its young.” Even in this reconsidered argument, it is not the substance of Ford’s claim that is treated as the primary outrage; it is the vintage of her claim that is. We all did terrible things when we were young, obviously; do we really want to live in a world that holds us accountable for them?

And so, this weekend, within the space of a few hours, something remarkable happened. The salient question about Ford’s allegations became, in some quarters, not whether they are true, but rather whether they count as allegations at all. The cruelties she describes—the alleged acts of dehumanization that left her traumatized, she says, as a 15-year-old and, still, as an adult—might be “terrible,” yes, but they are also … simply part of the natural order of things. Boys, figuring out how to be men. Locker-room talk, made manifest. “Drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.” Who wouldn’t be implicated in that? Who doesn’t see himself, in some way, in this age-old story? If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.

Americans talk a lot, these days, about norms. What will be preserved, in the tumult and chaos of today’s politics; what is worth preserving; what will fall away. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was already, in the profoundest of ways, a matter of norms: It will determine, almost inevitably, whether the women of America maintain autonomy over their bodies. Here, though, in Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that a young Brett Kavanaugh compromised her autonomy in another way, another norm is being litigated: the way we talk about sexual violence. Whether such violence will be considered an outrage, or simply a sad inevitability. Whether it will be treated as morally intolerable ... or as something that, boys being boys and men being men, just happens.

Christine Blasey Ford, who knew the risk she was taking—the horrific treatment of Anita Hill, all those years ago, remains a fresh wound—came forward anyway. Preemptively dismissed, even in anonymity (as a drunk, as a liar, as a partisan stooge, and as simply mistaken), Ford made herself public to issue a warning about a person seeking concentrated power over the lives and bodies of women. Her claims have been met by some with urgency and clarity: They must be investigated, many in power have said. But those claims have also been met, revealingly, with a collective shrug by people who see themselves in him but cannot see themselves in her. They weaponize their apathy. They are all Spartacus. They defend each other. And they defend a world in which—as a point of anxiety but also, it seems, as a point of pride—they can all be accused of something.