Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies on Thursday. (Win McNamee/AP)
Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of "We Were Feminists Once." She speaks frequently on the subjects of feminism, activism and popular culture.

As accusations fly about Brett Kavanaugh’s high school and college exploits, most women recognize the basic excuses deployed by his defenders. It didn’t happen; she’s lying. It might have happened, but it couldn’t have been him. Maybe it happened, but if it did, it was just horseplay. She was drunk, so she must be confused. He was drunk, so he shouldn’t be held responsible.

But there’s an equally familiar, and equally disturbing, thread through the allegations facing Kavanaugh, who has strongly denied committing assault. In each alleged incident, the woman at the center was not just a victim but the butt of a joke between men. 

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter, between the two, and their having fun at my expense,” Christine Blasey Ford testified Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, recounting what she says was an attack by Kavanaugh when she was 15 years old and he was 17.

What she and Kavanaugh’s other accusers describe feels deeply familiar to many women. As for too many of us, my introduction to sexual norms and mores came from movies, television shows and real-life behavior that all modeled, with varying degrees of malice, the notion that good, clean teen-boy fun isn’t just about objectifying women. It’s also about laughing at them and mortifying them in a sacrifice to the larger cause of male bonding and group identity. 

A male classmate dared another one to loudly snap your bra strap in front of the whole social-studies class? Just a joke, calm down. A casual soccer game became a one-sided competition for boys to chase female players and pull down their shorts? Boys will be boys, so don’t take it personally. Rumors that are baroque in their sexual specificity about the new girl, or the fat girl, or the girl unlucky enough to develop breasts a year or two earlier than others? Is that really such a big deal?

So many of us either knew that girl or were that girl, which makes me consider that perhaps Kavanaugh is telling the truth when he professes not to recall these alleged incidents. In the rarefied milieu of elite prep schools and Ivy League colleges that nurtured him, jokes like these wouldn’t have been shocking or even particularly remarkable. They were the unacknowledged collateral damage of male bonding, blithely enacted on young women who didn’t have the luxury to forget about it.

 So while the tale of a 17-year-old boy chasing a 15-year-old girl into a bedroom, pinning her down and clamping his hand over her mouth as he inelegantly tugs at her clothes is bad enough, the real animating cause is the other boy in the room, egging him on and laughing. For women who’ve experienced something like them, the stories of Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Renate Schroeder Dolphin and Julie Swetnick don’t sound like simple youthful indiscretions, but rather like sickening visceral reminders of a time when our fear and pain were compounded by the snickers and cheers of those who witnessed it as entertainment. The smarmy references to “Renate Alumnius” on the yearbook pages of Kavanuagh and his friends; the laughter surrounding Ramirez, already an outsider among her Yale peers, as Kavanaugh allegedly wagged his penis in her face — these stories have been resonant for many women who have had their own bodies, fears and struggles to get away witnessed as entertainment.

If you grew up immersed in the popular culture of the 1980s, it was entertainment. There were countless teen comedies, blurred together in an almost indistinguishable mass, about horny, unfulfilled boys whose journey to manhood inevitably included the sexualized humiliation of their female peers. Peeping at girls in showers and locker rooms was a recurring theme (“Porky’s,” “Private School,” “School Spirit”), as was filming them without their knowledge (“Getting It On!”). John Hughes’s 1984 comedy, “Sixteen Candles,” had a teen girl at its center, but it also featured a handsome jock handing off his passed-out girlfriend to a younger nerd after musing that he could “violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.” (That jock was the film’s romantic hero, by the way.) That same year, “Revenge of the Nerds,” billed as a triumphant comedy about the brainy underdogs outwitting the jocks who tormented them, suggested that the best way to exact payback against the popular kids was by installing secret cameras in a sorority house and distributing naked photos of a jock’s girlfriend.

Kavanaugh even blamed the yearbook reference to Schroeder Dolphin on the movies, in his testimony Thursday: Georgetown Prep students “wanted the yearbook to be some combination of ‘Animal House,’ ‘Caddyshack’ and ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ which were all recent movies at that time. Many of us went along in the yearbook to the point of absurdity.” (Less convincingly, he also said the line had nothing to do with sex: “That yearbook reference was clumsily intended to show affection and that she was one of us.”)

Another standard storyline in these movies was punishing beautiful, haughty girls for the crime of not being interested in our heroes: In 1982’s “Zapped!,” Scott Baio plays a nerd gifted with telekinesis when a lab experiment goes wrong. He wastes no time using it to strip clothes off his popular, stuck-up crush. “Screwballs in 1983 centered on a group of boys who plot to deflower, and thereby disgrace, a classmate named Purity Busch (yes, really), because she got them sent to detention. 

The prevalence of sexual assault and humiliation in spaces where masculine dominance is prized has been documented and tracked for decades. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday’s 1990 book, “Fraternity Gang Rape” documented the dynamics of privilege and dominance acted out in hazing and rape rituals in the Ivy League. Less rigorously, Camille Paglia made her name as a provocateur with pronouncements like this one, from 1990’s “Sexual Personae”: “Feminism with its solemn Carrie Nation repressiveness cannot see what is for men the eroticism or fun element in rape, especially the wild, infectious delirium of gang rape.” Some of the most indelible media accounts of sexual assault involve communities that so prized the status and the potential of the perpetrators that they actively contributed to the secondary humiliation of the victims

Brushing off the allegations against Kavanaugh as bogus political gamesmanship downplays the ubiquity of sexual humiliation — of women, but also of lower-status men or those perceived as insufficiently masculine — baked into the tribalistic cultures of athletics, fraternities, the military and more. It also ignores an obvious question: What does it mean for a man who is accused not only of violating his female peers, but also of finding those violations hilarious, to fill a crucial vacancy on the Supreme Court?

The effort expended to portray Kavanaugh as a good man, a trustworthy coach to the girls basketball team at the Blessed Sacrament School and a dependable carpool dad seemed performative from the start. The alleged ugliness now seeping from the past plants a bright red flag on all that. I imagine those ponytailed, plaid-jumpered girls struggling to reconcile the “Coach K” they know with the boy being described by a growing number of women: one to whom girls were fodder for dirty jokes. And I imagine new generations of boys, already conditioned by a culture that rewards them for conforming to a narrow masculine ideal, looking to men who secured their leadership roles despite — and possibly because — they knew that strong bonds can be made stronger at the expense of women. 

Kavanaugh’s 2015 remark that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep ” nods to the protection afforded powerful men by institutions that prize their potential and hope to share in their successes: College football rape scandals bank on the silence of coaches and athletic directors. An epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in the military persists with the help of higher-ups who look the other way. And a Supreme Court nominee can arrogantly believe that his past won’t surface because he’s confident in the structure that supports him — built on and by men who believe that women’s bodies and freedoms are just throwaway pawns in a game that’s rigged in their favor.

Read more from Outlook:

Kavanaugh isn’t entitled to a Supreme Court seat, just as men aren’t entitled to sex

I know why Christine Blasey Ford didn’t come forward earlier. I didn’t, either.

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