The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court ends the official, tumultuous debate over one man’s job qualifications. But the national conversation it sparked still resonates, especially for those now looking back at their “youthful antics” through a 2018 lens.
That self-reflection can be particularly tough for some men who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many of whom are rifling through their synaptic filing cabinets and having a reckoning with their own keggers, murky sexual escapades, and definitions of “ralphing,” “boofing,” and “Devil’s Triangle,” the now notorious was-it-or-wasn’t-it a drinking game.
For at least some of these men, the result is their own version of a #MeToo moment—or at least #MeMaybe
“I was Judge Kavanaugh,” says Edward Martin, 49, a journalist in Austin.
Like Kavanaugh, Martin attended an all-boys Catholic high school, not in Maryland but in New Jersey, where he says he and his classmates regularly drank to excess and continued to do so through college. And that sometimes led to behavior that Martin, with the wisdom of middle age and the backdrop of the Kavanaugh hearings, now finds mortifying.
“I can think of at least three examples of what I would say were drunken, immature, in some respects, overeager, clumsy experiences with girls,” he says—including one incident where he “fooled around” with a girl in the living room of a “crazy high school” party, with his drunken peers passed out next to them.
It wasn’t sexual assault in Martin’s eyes.
“My memory is we had sex, and that it was consensual,” he says. “I would chalk it up to being a douchebag high school kid who was a work in progress and still trying to figure out who he was as a person.”
In retrospect, though, he’s not sure if the girl viewed the event the same way. “With enough alcohol and the right setting you can do things you regret later, and people can walk away with different interpretations of things,” he says.
What he is sure of now is this: If the woman he was with feels she was violated “that’s all that’s important.’’
“If it has caused her pain,’’ he says, “I’m deeply sorry.”
Looking back: rape or seduction?
As the media has been quick to point out since Kavanaugh’s testimony last week, the eighties were a different time, reflected in how TV and films of that era portrayed sexual relations among teens and young adults.
Think about Sixteen Candles, with its cavalier scene of a boy taking advantage of a blitzed out prom queen. Or Animal House and its frat boy debauchery.
Or consider General Hospital’s Luke Spencer, who raped Laura Baldwin at a campus disco (yes, he was drunk at the time). The assault caused her major trauma, but Luke and Laura married a few years later, on Nov. 17, 1981, before 30 million fans—still the highest-rated hour in U.S. soap opera history.
Many viewers were appalled, but the writers subsequently spun Luke’s attack on Laura as a “seduction,” which made their relationship more palatable to audience members.
This made a certain sense, in retrospect, some experts say. Back then, there was no language for date rape.
“In the 1980s, the public notion of rape focused more on stranger danger than on friends, acquaintances or partners,” says psychologist Lisa Aronson Fontes, author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
“Real” rape, notes Fontes, was considered a violent attack by a stranger on a desolate street, or by an intruder who broke into your room in the middle of the night—very different from the murky sexual behavior that went on between young people who knew each other at drinking-fueled parties in high school and college.
That helps explain why, like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, so many young women didn’t come forward to authorities say they were assaulted, Fontes says. It’s also likely a contributing factor in why they didn’t confide in their parents, pastors, boyfriends, or best friends either.
“[Blasey Ford] may have hesitated to tell others what happened to her because she could not find an adequate name to describe it then,” says Fontes, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It did not seem to fit the notion of [attempted] rape that was most common at the time.”
Neil Bernstein, 52, who grew up in Rockville, Md., a short drive from Kavanaugh’s hometown of Bethesda, agrees with that assessment.
Although Bernstein went to public school and not the Catholic, all-boys Georgetown Prep, as Kavanaugh did, they both attended prestigious universities—U. Penn for Bernstein; Yale for Kavanaugh—during the same years. And the attitudes toward drinking and sex that were described during the hearing were familiar to him.
Bernstein shares that he got no action in high school, but says he made up for lost time as soon as he hit the hallowed ivied halls in 1984. He felt peer pressure to have the vodka shots and keep up with his pals when it came to sex.
“It wasn’t romantic, it was a sexual prowess thing,” says Bernstein, a former talk show producer who was Pat Buchanan’s communication director during part of his 2000 presidential campaign.
Unlike Kavanaugh, Bernstein wasn’t in a frat. Still, he recalls that, among the college crowd he ran with, there was an “air of entitlement where money and class and privilege becomes a given, and the raison d’etre of life becomes about getting laid.”
He doesn’t buy that the obnoxious behavior was simply the result of the decade in which he came of age—and Fontes agrees.
“They were different times, but nevertheless, most men in the ’80s knew not to sexually assault people,” she says. “Many young people got drunk in the ’80s, as they do now. A very small set of them force themselves sexually on others. Neither intoxication nor the historical period explain or excuse assault.”
Other men also refuse to stand by the “It was the ‘80s!” excuse.
Right after the Kavanaugh hearing, Bill Hogan, 49, received an email from a high school buddy about an incident the two men had been involved in 31 years earlier. The men, both from outside Boston, played in a band together and recall being at party and growing uncomfortable when another bandmate started making out with a clearly drunk girl from school. They didn’t intervene, but did stick around to make sure she was okay.
Neither their behavior nor their bandmate’s was a byproduct of the era, Hogan says. “That had nothing to do with the ‘80s. We knew back then right from wrong.”
What’s perhaps most notable about the conversation between the two friends recalling what happened decades ago is the fact that they were even talking about it at all.
And that might be the silver lining in all of this: Whatever you think of the #MeToo movement, at least conversations are taking place.
Girls are willing to speak up when they experience terrible things; older women, like Connie Chung, are talking about encounters from 50 years ago. Men are reviewing their own cloudy pasts, and having uncomfortable discussions with their own sons—and daughters.
In this respect at least, it’s a big leap forward from the ’80s.