Last Friday at 12:30 CST, a group of high school boys and I watched the Kavanaugh vote during study hall. Huddled around my school laptop, we held our breath as the Democrats returned to their seats, as the chairman gave the floor to Senator Flake, as the committee decided together to extend the hearing another week in order to conduct an FBI investigation. And if you came here looking for my opinion on the whole thing—who it is I believe—you’re not going to get it. At the end of the day, we didn’t get to decide whether or not Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court.
However, the conversations that surrounded the Kavanaugh hearing are worth revisiting. Because the case is a partisan one, with a lot at stake for both Republicans and Democrats, either Judge Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford has been villainized by those tuning in. And perhaps one side is right—what if Kavanaugh did this act and is a liar and assaulted Dr. Ford? What if Dr. Ford is just doing it for the sake of the Democratic Party? What matters much more than these individual truths (which, by the way, we may never have a clear answer to) is that we are able to see past this to the semantics of the discussion, to the fear on both sides, and to the grief that underlies it all.
You may accuse me of missing the news cycle… Isn’t this over and done with? He is sitting on the Supreme Court, there is no more debate to be had. But the effects of such a hearing will last much longer than Kavanaugh’s name will last in the news. That is why I think it is important to revisit the case—not only did it take several weeks for me to consider it (and write and rewrite this)—but the conversation about sexual assault will be ongoing.
It began in earnest about a year and a half ago with the #MeToo movement, as women demonstrated how common it is to be treated as objects even in the 2000s. Now the #WhyIDidntReport movement is continuing that conversation (whether you like it or not, hashtag movements are a thing), and regardless of Dr. Ford’s statement being true or false, the fact remains that many women do not report sexual assault because of other’s disbelief and the subsequent victim shaming. Additionally, women have been pointing out on social media how fear of sexual assault motivates many of our actions: we don’t go running at night, we park under lights, we check the back of our cars before we get into them, we carry our keys or pepper spray for defense, we get on our phones in empty places for added protection should something happen, we avoid (or are nervous) to take Ubers alone. I do these things. On Twitter, someone asked what women would do if there was an 8pm curfew for all men. An overwhelming response from women was that they would take an evening walk.
Being a high school teacher in such a moment presents several options: I could avoid the conversation entirely by saying “no politics in the classroom,” I could merely answer students’ questions about it when asked, or I could address it head on. On that Friday, I took the last route. Ringing in my ears were Emma Watson’s words from her speech to the UN: “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?” And frankly, avoiding this topic is nearly impossible when we spend our days discussing justice, courage, hospitality, and whatever else may come up in a literature discussion.
Though we could have spent time in class arguing about each side and the difficulties presented by the case, the time seemed much more fitting to discuss the assumptions we make as the audience. I heard several students drop comments such as, “Even if this did happen, why is she coming forward and ruining his whole life?” “How is this important if it was 36 years ago?” “She was probably really drunk and doesn’t remember.” “Girls are so paranoid.” “Who hasn’t done something stupid in high school?”
This is what deeply concerns me about the Kavanaugh hearings—many of the proponents of Kavanaugh’s nomination used language that both dismissed and normalized sexual assault. Dismissively, comments such as “Why is she ruining his life?” and “It has been 36 years, why come forward now?” reflect poorly on both our justice system and our perspective of sexual assault. If reporting a crime is considered ruining someone else’s life, then why report any crimes at all? Why is this only said in reference to sexual assault? Likewise, why is sexual assault not considered as serious a crime? The length of time, which many considered a problematic part of the case, also speaks to another problem in our nation: as we are learning with the #WhyIDidntReport movement, many women never report sexual assault, or only deal with it years after the event. What does this say about our culture? That women don’t expect to be believed in such a case? That they have been laughed at before? What a horrific thing—to suffer sexual assault and not be able to trust your deepest hurt to those closest to you, or even to law enforcement.
What is just as problematic is normalizing sexual assault with comments such as “boys will be boys,” and “Who hasn’t done something stupid in high school?” First of all, supporters of Kavanaugh have no right to say the second statement, because Kavanaugh pled not guilty. If he had said “Yes, I did that. And I’m sorry. It was wrong,” then we could have had a conversation about justice and mercy and repentance and forgiveness. Then we could have discussed at what point people can move on from their past mistakes and sit on the Supreme Court. Then we could have pointed out past mistakes and confessions of other politicians and talked about redemption—but that didn’t happen.
Secondly, in no way should sexual assault be compared with “doing something stupid in high school.” Stupid things in high school are getting drunk and getting a tattoo without your parent’s permission or trying your hand at shoplifting or skate boarding behind Walmart next to the “no skateboarding” sign or dropping candy bars off of a balcony. Now, I don’t support those decisions either, but there is a very big difference between teenage stupidity (I teach high school students, by the way) and assaulting another human being. How in the world have we normalized such behavior?
I’m hoping the “boys will be boys” comment is a rare one, but I have heard it. As someone who has two brothers (four if you count my brother-in-laws), a husband, and a father, in no way do I believe that boys should or will act like this. Not only does this normalize criminal behavior, it normalizes a negative view of men. Every ounce of me wants this comment completely abolished when it comes to sexual assault. I am terrified that my high school boys will actually believe this; I am afraid my sons one day will hear this. Sexual assault is not a given when it comes to being a boy. This comment was popular as well when Trump’s Access Hollywood video was released—“men just talk like that!” Really? Do we dismiss such comments when they come from our husbands? Our fathers? Our brothers? Our students? I would hope not.
So last Friday, I challenged four boys’ assumptions about sexual assault as we watched the Kavanaugh hearing. I didn’t dismiss their dismissive comments, nor did I allow the normalizing of such behavior. And what was beautiful about the entire situation is that these sophomore boys showed a massive amount of humility and thoughtfulness as they reasoned through their own assumptions. What could have been a political, partisan argument became instead a discussion of how we treat and talk about other human beings.
This is only the beginning of my work. I am working towards a culture where boys will be boys who respect women, care about how they are portrayed, and refuse to treat them as objects. I am working towards a culture where victims of sexual assault feel comfortable coming forward and receiving the help they need. I am working toward a world where, when this happens again in politics, our discussions will be filled with more grace than hatred, more patience than anger, and more grief than victory.