As soon as Christine Blasey Ford went public with her accusation that the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when the two were teens, a chorus of conservative political commentators came to his defense. Some of them aimed primarily to sow doubt about Ford’s story, but others weighed the accusations, only to conclude that the behavior described was characteristically adolescent and thus dismissable.
For instance, Stephen L. Miller, a writer for Fox News’s website, tweeted that the allegations didn’t amount to sexual assault, but rather “drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.” The radio-show host and columnist Dennis Prager advised his readers not to be shocked if a future Republican nominee “is accused of sexual misconduct … from when he was in elementary school.” Going back to an even earlier developmental stage to make her point, the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wondered, “What’s next, his potty training?" On Instagram, Donald Trump Jr. engaged in his own infantilizing of Ford’s accusations, likening the scene she described to the result of a schoolyard crush.
These statements were intended to diminish the seriousness of what Ford alleged happened, but, intentionally or not, they also diminish a whole category of humans: teenagers. And many teenagers, as they themselves are proud to report, have a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of sex and consent—one that invalidates the low expectations that so many adults appear to have of them.
As they’ve watched the week’s news unfold, some of them have gotten frustrated. “They just keep saying ‘He was in high school—boys will be boys,’” says Maurielle, a 17-year-old from Houston. “But I’m in high school—I don’t want that to happen to me.” She went on, “It feels alienating reading what's happening, because they’re blaming so much on the fact that they were in high school and they were young.” Julianna, a 17-year-old from outside of Pittsburgh, said she also rejected what she called “the whole ‘But maybe they didn’t know better at that age’ argument.” (I am referring to Maurielle, Julianna, and the other teenagers interviewed for this article only by their first name, to protect their identities.)
"I feel like we have to give teens more credit for being thoughtful human beings,” Ivy Chen, a sexuality-health educator in the San Francisco Bay Area, told me. She teaches thousands of kids and teens across nearly 50 schools each year, and says that her students are “really receptive” to and “up to the task” of conversations about sexual consent.
I talked with several teenagers from around this country this week about the accusations made against Kavanaugh, and their stances on sexual consent were very well thought-out. For example, Julianna, from outside of Pittsburgh, lamented that consent only comes up in conversation when it has been violated. “There’s this unspoken, quiet knowledge between us all that consent is required and healthy and good and everything, but no one will go out of their way to discuss it unless something bad happens,” she wrote to me in an email, adding, “I personally hate that because it feels like we can and should only talk about it when a situation is deemed Bad Enough. Like consent only ‘matters’ if the situation was terrible.”
I also heard from Evan, an 18-year-old Texan who, during some sexual encounters, has “found it useful for us to briefly roleplay a situation in which I make demands and they reject me.” His reasoning: “I want to establish that they have a say in this, that I’ll listen to them, that they can tell me what to do and what not to do.” And one self-described “18-year-old girl woman person thing from a super traditional Persian-Jewish immigrant community” told me in an email that “I have never slept with (or even kissed!) a guy, but when I do, there won’t be any gray area about it— everybody in the tri-state area will know whether or not I have consented.”
Many of the teens I talked with said that the allegations against Kavanaugh, if true, should disqualify him, especially given that he has not apologized for his alleged actions but rather denied them. “It’s the people who haven’t changed that you have to worry about,” says Ally, a 16-year-old Iowan who said that she has “views from both sides” politically. Similarly, Julianna wrote in an email, “I believe that someone should be held responsible for something (rape/assault) that they did, even if they were my age when they did it and it’s been decades since.”
“I have less experience living through life and knowing what's right and what's wrong,” said John, a 17-year-old from Seattle who identifies as a “very mild conservative, somewhere in the middle.” “But I think that most people around me have a pretty educated view on what's right and what's not in those regards."
Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, notes that most teens are of course mature enough to know right from wrong. But, he says, their brains really are different from adults’ brains. “Adolescents tend to place more emphasis on the potential rewards of a risky decision,” he says. “And adolescents are more shortsighted.” This is why, he said, the Supreme Court banned death sentences for offenses committed by those under 18, and put other limits on sentencing for them as well.
But that’s not the same as arguing, as so many commentators have, that teens are less aware of the consequences of their actions. Steinberg says the reason the Supreme Court treated minors as it did isn’t “because they don’t know better—that doesn’t even figure into the discussion—it’s because they have difficulty behaving in ways that are consistent with what they know,” Steinberg says.
That said, what they know depends in part on their environment. “Depending on where they go to school and where they live, especially state by state, the type of sex ed and therefore their attitudes about this can really differ,” Ivy Chen told me. As of 2016, California, where she teaches, requires middle and high schools to provide “comprehensive” sex-ed classes, which cover puberty, reproduction, and sexual health, as well as relationships, gender identity, sexual orientation, and (often but not always) consent. Chen says she brings up the latter concept generally as early on as fourth grade, telling kids, “Some people like hugs and some people don’t like hugs.”
The teens I spoke with provided a snapshot of how uneven sex ed is throughout the U.S. Maurielle, from Houston, said she’s had no instruction in the classroom aside from “a very brief abstinence-based thing my sophomore year.” A 17-year-old from rural South Carolina said she attended a school seminar about it last year, “but other than that it’s not really spoken about.” Meanwhile, Ally from Iowa said she’s been pleased with the sex-ed classes she’s had going back to fifth grade. (Luckily, though, there is the internet. “Everything I know about [consent] I learned from social media, like infographics from Tumblr or Twitter,” said Julianna. Three teens I communicated with, one from St. Louis and two from Texas, all separately mentioned a specific YouTube video, “Tea and Consent,” by name.)
Some of Kavanaugh’s defenders have tried to downplay the severity of the accusations, implying that something that happened in high school somehow matters less. That may well be the case as far as Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and the legal system more generally, are concerned. But it’s a rationale that Maurielle says she was upset to hear in conversations with her parents, whose views she paraphrased as “Yes, they were in high school. It’s fine—it was years ago.”
What’s “damaging” about that thinking, Maurielle says, is “If something were to happen to a high schooler, it would just be discredited because of that.” What Ford alleges happened to her when she was a teen would be no less scarring just because her attacker happened to be one too. People’s actions during their teenage years may not define who they become as adults, but they can permanently change the lives of others.