The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What happens at Georgetown Prep

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Sept. 6 about his "formative" days at Georgetown Prep. (Video: C-Span)

What happened at Georgetown Prep isn’t staying there, and it’s not only Brett Kavanaugh who’s in trouble now.

Hours after the Supreme Court nominee went on Fox News on Monday night to tell the nation he spent his time in high school “focused on sports and being a good friend,” the New York Times released a reported reading of his yearbook page that suggests Kavanaugh had, well, other interests.

“Devil’s Triangle,” says one item on a list of references to what apparently passed in his circle as boys-will-be-boys antics. “Renate Alumnius,” says another. Renate, the Times reports, was Renate Dolphin, a girl at a close-by Catholic school whose name Kavanaugh and 12 other graduating seniors at Georgetown Prep included on their pages in what appears to have been a cruel and coordinated campaign of sexual mockery: “You need a date / and it’s getting late / so don’t hesitate / to call Renate,” reads a “poem” on another young man’s page.

Dolphin was one of the 65 women who signed a letter supporting Kavanaugh two weeks ago. She didn’t know she had been the object of a sexist smear. How could she have? What happened at Georgetown Prep stayed at Georgetown Prep, and no one was going to tell her.

Follow Molly Roberts's opinionsFollow

This has been a through line not only in the catastrophe the Kavanaugh confirmation process has become, but in all the stories of sexual assault that have punctuated the past nine months. Why did Harvey Weinstein succeed in allegedly abusing dozens of women for dozens of years before anyone did anything about it? Why did Les Moonves allegedly get to spend 30 years systemically traumatizing his employees at CBS?

Why is a man who has now been accused of trying to rip one woman’s clothes off while stifling her screams with the palm of his hand and thrusting his penis in another woman’s face nominated to be one of the most influential people in the country?

The answer, in large part, is that just like what happened at Georgetown Prep stayed at Georgetown Prep, what happened in Hollywood stayed in Hollywood, and what happened at NBC or CBS or some of those restaurants headed by celebrity chefs stayed there, too.

As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces a sexual misconduct allegation, columnist Ruth Marcus asks, who's responsible for the burden of proof? (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Society’s power structure is made up of a series of clubs whose members look out for each other in exchange for getting looked out for themselves. Just read the New Yorker’s Sunday night story detailing an allegation of sexual misconduct against the Supreme Court nominee from his freshman year of college. An item toward the top of the piece condemned more than only the accused: “Senior Republican staffers also learned of the allegation last week and … expressed concern about its potential impact on Kavanaugh’s nomination,” write Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer. “Soon after, Senate Republicans issued renewed calls to accelerate the timing of a committee vote.”

Actors and directors and producers glanced away from Weinstein’s alleged atrocities because he knew how to make money and if they stuck by him they had a chance at a cut, or because he could make them pay if they didn’t. Republicans defend Kavanaugh, and do their best to obscure any misdeeds that might emerge from a full investigation, for the same reason: He is on their team, and the GOP gains power if their man makes it through — just like Georgetown Prep grads gain power when one of their peers adds to the school’s good name, or a “Renate Alumnius” gains power when another member of his crude little clique sits in a Supreme Court seat.

The struggle of a woman who levels an allegation against one of these men is so great because, in reality, she is never challenging only one man. She is challenging the clique and the culture he belongs to — his high school, his college, his country club, his political party, or his industry, from filmmaking to media moguling to restaurateuring. Those immersed in that culture will back him because he’s a big shot now, and it’s always better to have a big shot on your side. Some might also back him up because they’ve done something similar. If the code of secrecy remains intact, they do not have to fear that what they did at Georgetown Prep, or anywhere else, could become public.

A woman is never challenging only one in-group, either. She is challenging the culture of the whole country, where power feeds on power and once a man has won enough, it is unlikely anyone will let him lose.

Altering the way power works usually takes action from the powerful — who don’t act unless pushed. That’s why the Kavanaugh confirmation is so important as a test of the country’s ability to change. Congressional Republicans may fear that if they do the right thing they will be punished in the midterms for their failure to lodge another pro-life justice. If so, the punishment to the country will be far greater: Hush this up, and what happened at Georgetown Prep will keep on happening.