Cheryl O’Connor hadn’t planned on telling her teenage daughters about that night during high school, decades ago. But then Christine Blasey Ford told her story about a house party in the early 1980s, alleging that Brett M. Kavanaugh had drunkenly attempted to sexually assault her.
“I had a situation like this happen to me,” O’Connor told her 16-year-old daughter, Brynn, as they sat together in their Bethesda kitchen last week. She had also been a student at an all-girls prep school in the ’80s when she had been at a party picking up her belongings and the door unexpectedly locked behind her.
“I didn’t think it was a crime,” she said. “We weren’t taught that.”
Unlike her mother, Brynn O’Connor has been taught that attempted sexual assault between teens is a crime. The teen has learned about affirmative consent in her health class at Walt Whitman High. But as with many teens coming of age during the #MeToo era, there’s a gap between what she is being taught and her rising awareness, and what still happens around her.
She’s been to parties in the D.C. suburbs. Parents still turn a blind eye to booze. The lines still become blurred. “This is just as much of a problem now as when my mom was in high school,” she said.
She and other teens wish the adults commenting on the Supreme Court nominee and Ford would take the problem as seriously as they do. (Kavanaugh has strongly denied Ford’s claim.)
Interviews with teenagers from across the country reveal frustrations with high school experiences being dismissed by politicians and others as a phase, a time when boys can make mistakes that harm girls and overcome them. What Ford says happened to her — or worse, rape — could still happen to a 15-year-old girl at a party today, high schoolers say. Of women who say they have been raped, more than 40 percent experienced their first attack before age 18, according to survey findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet teens have listened as some of Kavanaugh’s defenders have said the assault, if it happened, took place “under the blurring influence of alcohol and adolescent hormones,” as a Wall Street Journal column put it. The 1980s were a different time, they said. Teenage boys will, of course, be teenage boys.
“Is the character you’re judged on the man you’ve been for 30 years, or the boy you were at 17?” wrote author and professor Tom Nichols.
Maybe the adults have moved on and learned from high school, but today’s teenagers still have to live it.
“I don’t know anyone who’s a girl my age who hasn’t been sexually harassed. That’s our reality, and I feel like politicians are completely ignoring it,” said Tori Siegel, a 17-year-old from Portland, Ore. Making excuses for Kavanaugh’s alleged misbehavior “is going to teach young boys that they can get away with things. Excusing this behavior just says that they can still be successful.”
“People have been saying, ‘Oh, it was like 30 years ago. Why should that have any relation to what’s going on now?’ ” said Josephine O’Brien, a 16-year-old from Manhattan. “But it’s something that directly affects our lives every day.”
Anjali Berdia, 19, went to the same all-girls high school as Ford, Holton-Arms in Bethesda. When she heard the news about the allegations, she texted one of her friends from Georgetown Prep, the same all-boys high school Kavanaugh attended. “We were both just like, it must be crazy to be in the DMV now,” she said.
Berdia, who is studying at the University of Pennsylvania, said she never encountered a situation quite like Ford’s.
“But I do 100 percent think that this type of thing could happen at a party in Montgomery County this Friday,” she said. The prep school social circle has a pervasive “hookup culture,” she says, “and in many ways I think hookup culture perpetuates rape culture.”
The single-gender nature of many prep schools puts added pressure on parties over the weekends because it’s the only time guys and girls get to hang out, Berdia said. “It becomes this mash of hormones, sweat and alcohol in some Montgomery County basement.”
Holton-Arms alumnae in the D.C. area and elsewhere hosted “We Believe” community vigils Sunday evening in support of Ford and survivors of sexual violence and assault.
When Berdia thinks about the prospect of Senate hearings on the allegations against Kavanaugh, she thinks about her own generation “watching and being like, ‘That’s okay.’ ”
If Kavanaugh is guilty of attempted sexual assault, “maybe he didn’t mean it and maybe he was a kid,” Berdia said. “But saying it’s okay means some other girl is going to be sexually assaulted in a basement because that’s okay as long as he turns out to be a successful adult.”
For most high school students, the Kavanaugh news only comes up in the occasional push notification. Senate hearings take a back seat to biology homework, college applications, soccer practice and homecoming plans.
But for some teens, even those far from Washington, the story has struck deep.
About a week ago in Boise, Idaho, three 15-year-old girls with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence sat down to write an open letter to Ford.
“We are fifteen year old girls,” the letter from Charlotte, Layla and Jessica was titled. “We are with you, Christine Blasey Ford, PhD.”
On pink Post-it notes, the girls brainstormed phrases that would get across how they felt: “Fun for boys should never include trauma for girls.” “We understand you.” “We are angry.”
“That’s not what having fun is about,” said Jessica, who like her friends requested that her last name not be used because of safety concerns.
In Palo Alto, Calif., Daniel Klein, 17, noticed that Kavanaugh was his age at the time of the alleged incident. But what stood out most to him was that Kavanaugh allegedly wasn’t alone — he had a friend nearby, watching. “At no point in the story does it sound like his friend intervened,” he said.
It made Klein think of some of the competitive groups among his classmates, “the guy’s guys” who are “known as being the cool ones and the ones the girls would go after.” “In some way it’s that you’re trying to prove that you’re part of the group,” he said. “It kind of builds into this game of trying to outwin each other.”
But Klein is keenly aware of these pressures. He has taken a literature class on toxic masculinity. He has listened to lectures on consent and the difference between “yes, but,” and “yes, please.” “We know what is not right and what is not acceptable,” he said.
That overused phrase, “boys will be boys,” frustrates high school students like Klein and Luke Chinman, 15, of Pittsburgh.
“Whatever age a person is, it’s never okay to sexually assault or harass someone,” Chinman said. “They should not get any free passes for doing any of these terrible things to other people. They need to know this and everyone else needs to know this.”
Perhaps the teenagers who know this best are the ones who have been through it.
One 17-year-old thought about that day, during a school event her sophomore year, when a close friend whom “everybody liked” pulled her into a darkened room, attempted to remove her underwear and coerced her into performing oral sex.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” said the teen, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still doesn’t want people to know what happened. “I fought back in the moment but not as hard as I could have, because I feared social and personal retaliation.”
When Beverly Dempsey, 18, heard Ford’s account, she thought of her own experience with sexual assault, during the fifth grade while living in Egypt for her parents’ work with the State Department. Dempsey, who recently graduated from Whitman, thought about all the parties she didn’t go to because she feared that she would be alone in a room with a guy she didn’t know.
She saw the way in which people dismissed Ford’s story, questioning its accuracy. “What if I speak out and that’s the reaction I get?” Dempsey said.
“I think every teenager goes through a phase,” she said, but there’s a major difference “between getting drunk and partying and sexually assaulting a woman.”
“If he had been in a drunken accident and left someone crippled,” she added, “he would have to take responsibility for his actions. Why is this any different?”