The accusations raised against Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 paint a horrifying and disqualifying picture. But the defense of Kavanaugh’s character, in light of his sexual assault allegations, strikingly resembles a web of other defenses of accused men in positions of power — whether they hold social capital on college campuses or sit in Senate hearings.
These webs of defense operate on several levels, all of which normalize sexually illicit interactions, and paint the key perpetrators in such interactions as victims. They typically seek to delegitimize sexual assault allegations occurring long ago by chalking them up to the “zeal of youth” — when the accused couldn’t have known any better. These webs of defense for the accused are troubling for two fundamental reasons: their message implies a lack of personal responsibility for young men, and they systematically reinforce sexually toxic environments.
Defenders of men accused of sexual assault routinely pedal the narrative that the more remote a misdeed is, the less significant it is — a sort of dry, mathematical contortion where transgression minus time equals moral value. As Orrin Hatch said of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations, “If [her accusations were] true, I think it would be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today.” Routinely exonerating powerful men because their juvenile misdeeds are too remote is selectively myopic, reinforcing the “boys will be boys” narrative.
Of course, sexual assault doesn’t occur in a moral vacuum, and to pretend it does is to suggest that young men can abdicate personal responsibility for their behavior merely because they are young. Talk about a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Teenage boys and young men now operate within an ethical buffer zone, where they can be judged by their virtues and disavow themselves of their sins. To be sure, young men should be given leeway to learn from their mistakes, as we all should. But when all accusations of distinctly sexual misdeeds are immediately relegated to “the zeal of youth,” that seems like a surefire way for a man to avoid blame, to not honestly learn from a mistake. If the shoe fits, wear it.
In addition, it’s not just defenders of men in traditional positions of power who appeal to the “boys will be boys” narrative.
In 2016, the father of Brock Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University who was convicted of sexual assault, released a statement saying, “He will never be his happy-go-lucky self … His life will never be the one that he … worked so hard to achieve.”
After their five-year ban from campus for chanting sexually lewd phrases in 2011, Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter got up and running again. DKE’s former president, Luke Persichetti, praised the fraternity’s cultural shift and the brothers who had contributed to it — this was, just before Persichetti himself was suspended for nonconsensual sex.
And in August 2015, Baylor University football player Sam Ukwuachu was sentenced to 10 years of felony probation for sexual assault of a freshman soccer player. Baylor investigated the case in 2013. However, because of football’s status in Texas, alongside Baylor’s position as one of the NCAA’s best teams, Baylor cleared Ukwuachu after a few interviews. Baylor, true to form, did not even request the victim’s hospital rape kit.
The particulars may vary, but in all cases, powerful men accused of sexually illicit behavior are defended. Their defense appeals to the same “boys will be boys” tenant that implies that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. The accused are surrounded by their web of defense, which incubates them and delegitimizes their accusers.
It is no surprise, then, that in a recent poll conducted by research firm, PerryUndem, three quarters of 14- to 19-year-old girls said they felt “unsafe as a girl,” and “judged as a sexual object.” Many young women see the moral leeway given to men’s juvenile misdeeds as threatening and unfair. “You’re definitely supposed to know right from wrong by my age,” said 15-year-old Missouri high school student, Leyla King.
And so, when Orrin Hatch says we should “consider who the judge is today,” and Kevin Cramer asks, “Even if it’s all true … does it disqualify him from the Supreme Court [today],” they are contributing to Kavanaugh’s own web of defense — scoffing at his high school hiccups, lauding his legal career.
But the zeal of youth has an expiration date. No one should be immune to the consequences of their choices — even if it is a popular college kid turned Supreme Court nominee.
Sammy Landino is a sophomore in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .