I don’t know if Brett Kavanaugh attacked Christine Blasey Ford in the summer of 1982 – but I know this: The culture in which this allegedly occurred was real then, it was real for me in the ‘90s, and it is real now.
I always knew that it was my responsibility to protect myself from men. I grew up in the ‘80s, when “date rape” was a catch phrase tossed around in school and on my favorite soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.” There was a whole story line following the young, innocent and beautiful blonde Cricket who was date raped by Derek (ending in Derek’s suicide) and then sexually harassed by her boss, Michael. In the drama, Cricket stood up against her attackers and emerged victorious, even changing her name to Christine and falling into the arms of her true love, Danny. The story was meant for entertainment, but I took it as a clear-cut warning: I had to be vigilant. Guys were out for one thing. If I wanted to stay safe, I had to protect myself.
This narrative stayed with me. I formed a picture in my head of a violent and vicious stranger, or a violent and vicious guy I might even know and like, who was ruled by hormones more than intellect. It was up to me to stop guys like that. It was up to me to make them fall in love with me, but not to rape me.
I thought it would be easy! I thought I could spot a bad guy from miles away. I didn’t realize how murky the real world would be.
In the real world, I was a dreamy-eyed girl looking for love and happiness in every study session, at every keg party, and at every tailgate. I went to college wanting to get a degree, sure, but I also felt certain I’d find my future husband amid the flannel-wearing, Patagonia-vested boys shotgunning beers and copying each other’s homework. I rushed a sorority so I could find a tribe of like-minded young women and so I could experience the social life I’d always fantasized about. And, what a social life I found! We had 7:00 a.m. tailgates, evening serenades and so many theme parties I couldn’t even keep track.
Our sorority had a lot of guidelines in place to keep each other accountable and safe, keeping right in line with the narrative I had already embraced. The frat boys we hung out with were fun – and dangerous. It was understood that we should look beautiful and flirt sweetly and also act like ladies. We had sober sisters on hand to drive us home and patrol the dance floors in case a sister was getting too sloppy. We had a code phrase and hand signals that pointed out when we were getting out of control. We even had entire meetings back at the sorority house devoted to self-defense. I remember vividly the hours we spent with a former member of the military, a beefy guy with a booming voice and a clear message: “You have to learn to protect yourself now, because guys will stop at nothing to get what they want. You will have only yourself to blame if you don’t learn this stuff.”
While my sorority was holding a class in self-defense, teaching me how to poke an attacker in the center of his throat and carry pepper spray in a powder pink canister, what were the fraternity boys learning? Were they encouraged to take a “How Not to Attack a Woman” class? Hardly. No, on the contrary, there was actually one fraternity on campus printing up t-shirts for rush depicting a beautiful woman with her legs spread and a guy peering in between them. This poster was created so the frat could attract the highest caliber men to their brotherhood. It fired me up – I even wrote a letter to the editor of our school newspaper about that darn poster. It didn’t do much to enact change, but it did make me feel better.
I wish I could say the first time I was offended the first time I saw that poster, but I’d only be telling a half-truth. I was offended, but it wasn’t because of the sexual nature, or the objectification of women. Instead, I remembered thinking, “That girl has better legs than I do.” See, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) was a fraternity that was known for hanging out with the hottest ladies – that’s truth in advertising right there! SAE was also a fraternity that rarely, if ever, invited my sorority to parties. They hung out with the hot girls, and though my sorority had plenty of hot girls, we were more known for being fun and friendly girls-next-door. I saw that poster and I was reminded of my inadequacy. I wasn’t pretty or sexy enough. That was my first thought.
The boys were learning how to “get” the hot girls, and the girls were learning how to protect themselves. And yet, we were all thrown together amid Goldschlagger and kegs of PBR, encouraged to flirt and laugh and dance and get along. There was an undercurrent of sexual energy at every single party I attended. Speaking simply for myself, I was always on the lookout for a guy that might like me. I wanted to flirt and laugh and dance with a cute boy, and I wanted him to fall in love with me. That was my intention, at each and every social gathering. I didn’t want to be raped – but I knew I had to give a little, or I would never get anything in return.
So, I flirted. I laughed. I danced. And I got myself into some situations that could have been downright horrifying. I found myself cornered in Mexican-blanket laden frat rooms with mini-fridges and whiteboards under the guise of looking aquariums that didn’t exist. I spent time in dark corners of sticky dance floors. I did a shot of Hot Damn to “marry” one boy I had just met, and then did a shot of Red Pucker to “divorce” him. Sure, there were sober sisters on the lookout, but they weren’t following my every move – and besides, I wanted these guys to like me!
This was the social scene I had craved. This was my ticket to a long and happy relationship with the guy of my dreams. I just had to go through the song and dance and let my guard down a little … but not too much.
I’m lucky that I wasn’t attacked. All of the ingredients for disaster were certainly there, and I didn’t do anything special that other women who weren’t so lucky didn’t. Some of my friends were roofied, some were harassed, and I’m only now, decades later, finding out about the extent of the damage that was done.
Why didn’t they tell? Well, if it was your fault – if you were always taught it was up to you – and something happened – and you were drinking, and you were wearing a short skirt – and you smiled too long at the wrong guy – who was going to back you up? Was there anyone that would take your side? Would you want to face the shame, humiliation, guilt and remorse, most likely alone? What would your parents say? Did you want to bring that shame upon them? What would the other boys think of you? What would your friends think of you?
With dozens of young women and dozens of young men fueled by booze and strobe lights, it’s probably not a surprise that things occasionally get out of hand. A girl dances a little too close. A boy dares his friend to cop a feel. It happened. It still happens. The sexual energy, the wanting, the craving for connection, the darkness, the thumping bass … it all conspires to create the perfect opportunity for things to get a little too out of control. For the girl to push things a little farther than she really wants to. For the boy to do things he didn’t intend.
When the limits are broken and things get carried too far, we as a society have accepted the narrative. She shouldn’t have been drinking so much, or showing him so much attention, or wearing what she was wearing. His life shouldn’t be over because of his natural urges. It was all in good fun. It was a mistake. No real harm done.
Except sometimes real harm is done.
When I was in college, I knew that it was my job to protect myself. I knew that if I was ever attacked, it would be my fault. I knew I had to learn self-defense techniques and have friends nearby and not drink too much and wear appropriate clothing. I just didn’t realize how hard it would be. I didn’t know how quickly a sweet flirtation could end in an aggressive grope. I didn’t know that the guys that looked the sweetest could be the guys with the most to prove. I didn’t know how to attract without leading someone on, or to be alluring without putting myself in danger. All I knew for sure was that it was all up to me.
I knew I had to be a Good Girl and keep myself safe … and I wanted to be liked, and I wanted to get myself a man. How was I supposed to do both?
Respect and integrity should not rest squarely on the shoulders of women and girls. If I was attacked, I would have blamed myself, but that would have been horribly destructive. The perpetrator of violence is the one at fault. That is true always. That is true when a woman is wearing a short skirt and that is true when a man is 18 years old. Let us not fall into the trapdoor of a narrative that seeks only to undermine the integrity of women and men.
This dance that we engage in is dangerous and demeaning. When we set up men as potential perpetrators and women as defenders, we reduce everyone to roles that are far beneath our capabilities. We settle for the lowest common denominator (“every boy wants just one thing!”) instead of lifting each other up with mutual respect and equal accountability. We paint women as potential victims with dangerous bodies that can and will get hurt, and we paint men as desperate, carnal creatures that lack the capacity for integrity and dignity. Both genders are far better than this. Every human deserves to be treated like a human.
The stories we tell matter. The actions we take matter. The way we treat each other matters. The way we view ourselves, and each other, matters. It matters now, and it mattered then. And it is up to us to find those narratives that are no longer serving us as humans, and to change them.
Fast forward a couple decades later, and though I’m a mother, I’m not raising any young women of my own. I will never have to sit down with my daughter and show her how pepper spray works, or point out the most vulnerable areas on a man’s body so she can know where to poke her fingers if she is attacked. Instead, I have two little men on my watch. These two little guys will have pressure on them to be cool, to “get lucky” and to “be a man.” I don’t want to be on the sidelines coddling their hormones. They are more than their hormones, and more than their bodies. They are extravagantly loved little humans with capacity for great love and great honor. I want them to own their masculinity and find integrity within themselves.
When I was in college, I was sure that if I was ever attacked it would be my fault. That was then, and this is now. Now, I want to change the story.
Our little girls, and our little boys, are watching us now. What do we want to teach them?