In the early 1980s, if a teenage girl was sexually assaulted by someone she knew at a party, reporting it to authorities would have likely been out of the question. After all, said Mary Koss, a pioneering researcher on sexual assault in the 1980s, “there was no term for it.”
Rape, or attempted rape, was thought to be a crime only committed by strangers. But an incident between two acquaintances who were drinking at a party?
“What would you have called it?” Koss, now a professor of public health at the University of Arizona, said. “A serious miscommunication?”
Since Sunday, an alleged sexual assault from one summer in the early 1980s has been thrust into the national spotlight, roiling the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in California, told The Washington Post that during a gathering of high school students in suburban Maryland, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and groped her, attempting to take off her clothing. As she tried to scream, Ford told The Post’s Emma Brown, Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand.
All the while, Kavanaugh’s friend was watching, Ford alleges. Both Kavanaugh and his friend were “stumbling drunk,” Ford said. She believes it was the summer of 1982, when she was 15 and Kavanaugh was about 17.
Kavanaugh, meanwhile, said that he “categorically and unequivocally” denies the incident ever happened.
As often occurs when decades-old accusations emerge against powerful people, some critics have questioned the fact that Ford waited more than 35 years to report the alleged incident. But women who, like Ford, were teenagers during the early 1980s are far from surprised.
For women who were in high school during those years, “it’s credible. Happened all the time,” tweeted Jennifer Palmieri, who served as director of communications for the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign. “We didn’t talk about it, tried to forget it. But the fact that it was common didn’t diminish the toll it took.”
“The kind of ‘boys will be boys’ mentality was very strong,” Estelle Freedman, a history professor at Stanford University specializing in women’s history and feminist studies, told The Washington Post. “You were likely to be disbelieved.”
The 1980s in many ways marked the continuation of the feminist, anti-rape activism of the 1970s. Rape crisis centers had become a part of the community landscape. Federally funded research on sexual assault had begun to take place.
“This is sort of a period where the sands are shifting,” said Leena Akhtar, a lecturer in women, gender and sexuality studies at Harvard University.
But for most women, rape was still something that involved strangers in dark corners. Women were still made to feel that if something happened at a party with an acquaintance, it was her fault, said Patricia Ireland, an attorney who served as president of the National Organization for Women from 1991 to 2001.
“From a prosecutor’s perspective, the perfect rape victim was old enough to tell her story but not old enough to have ever have had a smoke or a date or a drink,” Ireland said.
While feminist journalist Susan Brownmiller coined the term “date rape” in her bestselling book in 1975, it was not until the mid 1980s that the phrase “date rape” emerged in earnest in the mainstream to describe rape committed by an acquaintance.
In 1985, Koss, then a psychology professor at Kent State University in Ohio, published the early findings of the first large-scale nationwide study on rape, showing that one in four female college students had an experience that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape.
The study surveyed 7,000 students at 25 schools, and the initial revelations were published in a piece in the October 1985 issue of Ms. magazine, titled, “Date Rape: The Story of an Epidemic and Those Who Deny It.”
The study was monumental for bringing the concept of date rape to the forefront, for “bringing to light something that had always existed,” Koss said.
But over the years, Koss’s study would be the target of intense criticism from skeptics accusing her of measuring incidents that respondents themselves did not define as rape. Critics characterized her research as advancing a “radical feminist agenda that would have most male–female sexual encounters classified as rape,” Alexandra Rutherford, a professor at York University, wrote in an article about rape surveys over the years.
“More damningly, some accused [Koss and other feminist researchers] of creating a phenomenon that simply did not exist,” Rutherford wrote. “The majority of date rapes, they argued, were artifacts of the rape survey itself as cleverly deployed by radical feminists masquerading as objective scientists.”
While the emerging discussion over date rapes was a turning point in the study of sexual assault, the fierce resistance to the concept sometimes resulted in efforts to undermine women’s credibility.
“Back in the deep dark 1980s, the term ‘date rape’ seemed like a good way to explain an act of sexual violence perpetrated by an acquaintance,” tweeted Denise Meringolo. “In reality, it was used to minimize and cast doubt. Many of us have stories painfully similar to the one shared by Christine Blasey Ford.”
The controversy over defining rape in the 1980s played out agains a backdrop of popular films and TV shows that depicted sexual violence as a punchline. In an essay in the New Yorker in April, actress Molly Ringwald reckoned with some moments in her own films that in retrospect she finds disturbing.
Among them was a scene in John Hughes’s 1985 film “The Breakfast Club,” in which it’s implied that the rebellious teenage character John Bender, played by Judd Nelson, touches Ringwald’s character inappropriately. Claire squeals, slaps him and cusses at him, but keeps a straight face.
“It was an accident,” John says. “So sue me.”
Then there’s the scene in “Sixteen Candles” in which the character Jake, played by Michael Schoeffling, “essentially trades his drunk girlfriend,” Caroline, to the Geek, played by Anthony Michael Hall, “to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear,” Ringwald wrote.
Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, on Sunday referenced a number of sitcoms in the 1980s and 1990s in which characters were almost raped, “some preachy, some thoughtful, some prurient,” she tweeted in light of the Kavanaugh allegation.
“The phrase ‘date rape’ was new & divisive,” Nussbaum wrote. “It’s not that guys didn’t know it was wrong or that girls saw it as normal. But it was def viewed in a different light & the teen movies of the 80s document that fact to a disturbing degree.”
Helaine Olen, an opinion writer for The Washington Post, tweeted that “the concept of date rape barely existed, if at all. If you were drunk, and a guy forced himself on you, it was on you. Don’t believe me? Watch Sixteen Candles.”
Her thread of tweets prompted dozens of women to share their own experiences with sexual violence in the 1980s.
Kirsten Copeland, a lawyer in Arizona who graduated high school in 1983, vividly remembers hearing gossip during her sophomore year about a classmate who had been raped at a party over the weekend.
Copeland recalled being horrified for the girl, but believing that there would be no consequences for the perpetrator. Meanwhile, the girl’s reputation would be “dragged through the mud.”
The idea of consent was never discussed, she told The Post. “The fact that you couldn’t consent wasn’t even in the vocabulary.”
“If it had been me,” Copeland said, “I would have never talked to a school official. I would have been confident that I would be the one in trouble.”