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.
An alleged witness to the rape attempt Brett Kavanaugh is accused of has a history of romanticizing teenage indiscretion
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.)