Almost as soon as Christine Blasey Ford came forward in an interview with The Post and accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in front of another boy at an alcohol-fueled high school party in the early 1980s, Republican partisans attempted to dismiss the account. Too far in the past, and anyway, why didn’t she speak up earlier?
“Decades old allegations against Kavanaugh come out just days before a vote … victim or opportunist?” tweeted conservative commentator Tomi Lahren. “So if someone accuses Kavanaugh of beating him up and taking his lunch money in 1983, we are just supposed to believe it? Kavanaugh has over 100 women vouch for his character over 37 yrs and 1 woman who accuses him of something 35 yrs ago,” asked conservative pundit Erick Erickson. Bloomberg News reported Monday morning that the White House would “question the credibility of the accuser because she didn’t tell anybody about the incident at the time.”
Give me a break.
It’s all but ludicrous to expect that the adolescent Ford, in the early 1980s, would experience an attempted rape at an underage party and go off and confide in her parents, a school counselor or even a friend. That’s not how it was done. Almost any Generation X female — and I am one — can tell you that.
In the early 1980s, the concept of what we now call date or acquaintance rape barely existed. Instead, teenage girls and women were routinely warned to stay away from groups of men, especially if alcohol was involved. If they ignored that advice — and almost all of us did, at least occasionally — we shared in the blame for any bad outcome. If you drank alcohol, even as little as one sip, you shouldn’t have been drinking. If you abstained, or alcohol wasn’t involved at all, you shouldn’t have been there anyway.
It was always the girl’s fault. Boys will be boys!
It was a strange time. Compared to today’s standards, parents were all but absent, giving their children a measure of autonomy now unimaginable. The greater culture celebrated sex, but girls were still judged harshly for it — and that was true, even if the encounter was violently forced or coerced. If you attempted to talk about it, your friends probably wouldn’t believe you and they might well join in gossiping about you.
Molly Ringwald, star of the 1980s teenage classic hits “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles,” recently conveyed this reality of the era. She came forward earlier to say she was more than a bit dismayed when she recently re-watched the films that made her a star:
I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles,” when the dreamboat, Jake, essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the Geek, to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear.
But when Ringwald reached out to Haviland Morris, the actress who played the role of Caroline, it was like a blast from the 1980s past:
In her mind, Caroline bears some responsibility for what happens, because of how drunk she gets at the party. “I’m not saying that it’s O.K. to then be raped or to have nonconsensual sex,” Haviland clarified. “But … that’s not a one-way street.”
Or recall when Patricia Bowman stepped forward in 1991 to accuse William Kennedy Smith, the nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), of raping her after a night out. Bowman’s reputation was quickly shredded. The New York Times reported on her speeding tickets, partying in adulthood and even dredged up an unnamed woman who claimed Bowman showed a “little wild streak” in high school.
A jury would take barely an hour to exonerate Smith. One juror would explain that Bowman’s clothing — which didn’t show signs of any damage — was the key to her decision. “No evidence on the dress,” she claimed. Barely a year later, Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism published and became a media sensation for claiming the incidence of date rape was exaggerated, promoted by an academic culture of female “victimization.”
So how did things change? In the mid-1980s, University of Arizona professor Mary Koss released controversial research showing as many as 1 in 4 women attending college had been sexually attacked by someone known to them, yet only a minority of them realized they were the victims of rape or attempted rape. Over time, that research made its way into the popular culture, and a combination of better awareness, more intensive parenting and changing mores have made us both more likely to condemn rape culture and to support its victims.
But the world that Gen X came of age in still lives on. It lives on in the doubts that #MeToo victims experienced when they attempted to report — or didn’t report at all — on the violence done to them by men in their workplaces. It lives on in stories that women such as Ford share decades later, naming names when it’s much too late to prove or disprove the horrific allegations in question. It will live on too in the accusations that Kavanaugh — despite his denials — unlikely will be able to definitively refute. (Kavanaugh can’t even look for help from his high school friend Mark Judge, who Ford said was at the alleged incident and who has denied that it happened, because the man has written a memoir about drinking in high school to the point of blacking out.)
When it comes to Kavanaugh, that’s more than a trifle ironic. His legal record indicates he would, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, use his power to do his best to enshrine the values and laws of an earlier era — one where it will be harder, if not impossible, for women to control their own bodies, and where employers can treat employees with impunity. But even now as Kavanaugh moves to restore the past, he himself will likely be trapped within it.