Boys will be boys. Rough-housing. What happens in (fill in the boys club activity) stays in (the boys club), and locker-room talk. This is some of the language used to defend behaviors in boys, and men, to describe otherwise reprehensible behavior. But now, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, some are using it defending sexual assault.
Setting aside if Brett Kavanaugh is or is not guilty, let us look at the premise that teenage behaviors should not be used to determine the character of a man, that people can change, or that distance alone from an event somehow minimizes the likelihood of a person continuing to carry the traits of earlier times.
But instead of talking in generalities, let’s narrow our focus to the particular set of behaviors associated with attempted rape.
And if you know any 17 year olds, imagine them right now.
Do you know a teenager who would dominate another person, with physical force, someone frightened and screaming and trying to get away, who would then put their hand over that person’s mouth to silence them so that they could continue to fulfill their own wishes? If you knew they had just done such a thing, to a young boy, or in this case a young girl, would you view them differently? Would you be concerned? Would it disturb you? Or would it be the same as if you had heard they had gotten wildly drunk the night before and thrown up in the bushes?
Some folks are defending sexual assault as if it is similar to just a raucous night out, paramount to drunkenness, participating in some graffiti, stealing some beers from a convenience story, or having crazy sex with too many different people in a week. Many of us are filled with regret or at least embarrassment about the years of teenage-hood through at least our early 20’s. And yes, it would be quite unfair if those reckless behaviors were treated as reflective of who we would be in 20 years. Teenagers are frequently poor decision makers, have poor judgement, have little impulse control, and difficulty seeing the big picture. It is frightening to think that our alcohol or drug use, sexual activities, and general poor choices as a young person would limit all of our future lives choices.
A Tale of Regret
When I was a teenager, I was a pretty serious drug user. I had a cohort of 4 galfriends, and we smoked a lot of hash, and popped a lot of pills. We were good enough kids, kind for sure, part of a small community of international kids living in Portugal and attending an exceptionally small international high school where everyone knew each other. We were generally liked by our classmates, even if they were a bit intimidated by us for our “coolness”.
One year our school hosted a national high school soccer championship, and so kids from all over Portugal come to Lisbon to participate. Kids at our school hosted the visiting teenagers. My family hosted one of these gals, who was 16, while I was 17. She came from a small town in the south of Portugal. This was a big and exciting adventure for her to the country’s capital, and a prestigious international school.
She had never seen the likes of someone like me. Besides being the daughter of an American diplomate who lived in a house reflective of my fathers status, I was a hippie chick with long hair, too many bracelets and clothes that flowed.
After dinner at our house I was supposed to take her downtown where we would meet with a group including a couple of her friends and the other hosts. But being a druggy kid, on our way down I wanted to get high. With my hippie druggy friends. In the dark woods of course, because that is where we would routinely get high.
I had enough sense to know this was not a good idea, if for no other reason than we might get told on, but my wish to get high, mixed with my limited impulse control, and clear lack of understanding of how she might experience this, resulted in me asking her if she wanted to get high, and upon refusal, asking if she would at least come into the woods with me and my gaggle of friends to get high. When she said she didn’t want to do that either, and could we please just head downtown, I took her. And left her with the group. She said “oh it is fine, you go, I will be fine”, which I believed because I wanted to.
What I would find out later is that upon finding her friends, she broke down in tears, shared how frightened she had been, said she couldn’t possibly go back to our house. She went back to another host’s house with her friend, who called my parents and explained.
When I got home and was confronted with what happened, I was panicked, but about myself and being busted.
The next day, as my father and I sat in the Principle’s office while she was expelling me, I heard the girl’s story of what happened through my Principle’s description. I suddenly saw her perspective. I suddenly understood I had terrified her. Terrified her. Me. A nice, compassionate, loving generous girl. Who also was a druggy, but good person. I sat there looking at my Principle, seeing myself through her eyes. I couldn’t look at my father. I sobbed but did not make a peep of protest, even though I well knew the consequences of what was happening. I was being expelled from the only school I could attend in Portugal, so with or without my parents, I would need to leave the country to finish high school.
But that paled in comparison to what was going on inside me. I had frightened a young, naive girl, to tears. I was saturated in shame that I can still taste today.
The Principle was ultimately forced to take me back into the school because of my dad’s position in the country. And because I think, or at least hope, that my father fought for me, knowing my heart and knowing that while the story was true, the intentions were not. But much changed inside me. I developed an observing ego that day that began to strengthen my empathy and capacity to see and honor difference. But if given the chance to see that girl today, I would break down in tears and tell her how deeply sorry I was.
Defending Sexual Assault
We well understand that teenagers lack the perspective adults typically acquire. Teenagers are still at the early stages of developing basic impulse control. Teenagers might be prepared to consider consequences that could impact them that week, but hardly consequences 20 or 30 years down the line. In fact, we wouldn’t want them to.
Teenage-hood is about exploring and testing boundaries, not just their parents, but their own. They psychologically benefit from trying new and crazy things, stepping outside the lines, trying on different personas and ways to approach situations, feeling the emotional repercussions of certain choices. A time will come when they need to reel it in, start thinking about the impact of waking up with a hangover, or sharing nude selfies on their phones. But before that, some recklessness is to be expected.
Brett Kavanaugh gave a speech sharing stories of his drunken recklessness at Yale Law School. I personally found the speech deeply disturbing, both that a grown man still thought drunken “war” stories were funny or impressive, as well as proof that wealthy white Yale boys can get away with stuff that would get poor black community college boys thrown in prison for decades. But no one called to halt the confirmation process and call for an investigation. I judge him for still bragging about it, and some for getting away with it, but few judge him for having done it. He was young.
Sexual assault isn’t recklessness. Sexual assault isn’t poor decision making or a result of limited inputs control. To assault someone, even while drunk, you must look a person in their frightened eyes, hear their pleading screams, feel their hot tears, and completely disregard all of that. Sexual assault requires an absence of empathy for the person you are assaulting.
Empathy Requires a Sense of Sameness
Empathy is about being able to see the other person as like you in someway. It amounts to understanding that like you, they would be impacted by certain things in a similar way. That if you would be terrified by being pinned down by someone, who was attempting to dis-robe you so that they could violently penetrate you, they would likely feel the same.
We do a fair amount to help kids develop empathy. Parents, teachers, even TV shows, routinely ask children things like “how would you feel if someone did that to you”, “what does that kid look like they are feeling” “what do think is the reason that kid is upset given what you know about what just happened”. Some kids take to empathy better than others. But most kids can be helped to understand another persons perspective, which is the cornerstone of empathy.
Interesting research has routinely shown us that learning a second language increases childhood empathy. The link is that they have to see something from another person’s perspective/language. So it is not that it just increases empathy, but increases the ability to apply the concept of empathy to those who are different than them.
Another interesting piece of research is in improving parenting skills in adults. The most effective way to improve parenting skills isn’t by teaching theory or skills or idea. It is simply helping people remember their own experiences in childhood. Upon reviewing their own childhoods, honestly, regardless of whether they had good or not so great parenting, improved their parenting Why? They increased empathy with their children. They increased their ability to identify with the feelings of their children. They lost the ability to deny/disconnect/reject the emotional lives of these little creatures that can seem so different from us, but are actually people we share much in common with.
Part of the incentive for seeing people as different, is that it frees people to abandon the burdens of empathy. If I think that because of race, or gender, or orientation, of economics, or immigration status, that you are different enough from me, I can tell myself you don’t have the same feelings or needs or dreams or rights that I have. I can treat you however I want because your tears aren’t the same as mine. Yours mean something different and are less relevant. Your suffering isn’t like my suffering, because you deserve to suffer but I do not.
It is predominately men who rape. And they predominantly rape women, girls and boys. It is not just because they can have more physical power over these groups of humans. It is because these groups of human are not them and needn’t be regarded in the same manner. To go a bit further, I would say they activity are seeking to repudiate the ways they do relate to these others, and use behaviors of denigration to further separate themselves.
If Supreme Court candidate Judge Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the now Psychology Professor who accused him of attempted rape, when he was 17 and she was 15, even when he was drunk, it was made possible by not being able to see the humanity in her. He saw something less than, whose self he needn’t take into consideration. Being unable to see women as having parity of needs and rights, would be quite problematic in a judge. In fact in this last couple years we have had multiple examples of judges who could identify with and feel concern for young male rapists and the impact a rape prosecution and imprisonment would impose on them, while unable to consider the victim as suffering any consequences from “20 minutes of action” or “seven minutes in heaven”.
Can People Change?
Do people change? Absolutely. Can they develop increased empty in later life? Absolutely. Can they expand in whom they are able to see humanity. Most definitely. But it is a serious and painful process. It means first realizing that you have failed to see the humanity in the other. It means coming to terms with the ways you have done damage to others by not seeing them as your equal in the human condition. It means unpacking how you came to see other groups as so different, unworthy of your assumptions of equality.
A Tale of Childhood Sibling Sexual Abuse
I worked with a client many years ago that had been sexually assaulted by her brothers when they were all under 12 years old. They engaged in sexual acts with her, which started when she was 6, and they were 8, 9, 11 and 12. It proceeded for about two years.
When I meet her she was in her mid-thirties. She was decently functioning in the world, but could not maintain romantic relationships and had an active eating disorder, both of which were clearly linked to the child sexual abuse. She also had ongoing contact with her brothers, despite them having never discussed what had happened.
As we explored those early years I kept an ear out for what was going on in this family that would allow four young boys to engage in such disturbing behaviors. It became apparent quite quickly that all 5 of these children were emotionally famished and in desperate need of comfort, and that the sexual activities were a misguided, perverse attempt to acquire that from each other..
Her eating disorder was largely predicated on her own shame for being a somewhat active, if reluctant, participant in the abuse. She too was starved for affection and the abuse, while confusing and uncomfortable as a child, and ultimately massively traumatic as an adult, was partly a source of comfort as a child. And she still loved her brothers. And she felt as though they still loved her.
When she felt sufficiently strong and prepared, given her desire to maintain relationships with her brothers, we brought them in for a session so that she might confront them with what had happened. It was clear to me when they entered the office that they were each filled with shame, and with a clear sense of what was about to happen.
She laid it out. Calmly, quietly, she said what she remembered. I had coached her to not protect them, or make excuses for them. Not because they were not worthy of her empathy or compassion, but because she had already been used by them to manage their feelings, and that she could no longer play that role for them.
They all immediately teared up. The oldest very very quietly, the youngest bursting into tears. These boys had all lived with the shame all of the years since their childhoods. They had all tried different venues to “make it up” to her. They didn’t know how much she did or didn’t remember, but none had the courage to talk to her about it. The two younger brothers had talked to each other once about it, trying to figure out what they were supposed to do with the shame, which was so weighted it was its own trauma, and what they were supposed to do for her. The oldest brother had told his wife years before, assuming she would immediately leave him, but not being able to carry the secret any more, and seeking guidance for making reparations to his sister and brothers.
In the session the oldest two brothers claimed the largest portion of responsibility. They were eager to claim it all, but I discouraged that. They understood they had abused their sister, and also understood that they had abused their younger brothers by turning them into abusers.
What the brothers had not yet understood was the horrible position the were in as children, and how desperately they had all needed each other, and that they were confused, traumatized children with limited internal resources and a sense of options. In the session she worked hard not to simply forgive them, as that was their work to do. All five of these adults had to find compassion for themselves and each other and it would take time.
What Does Change Look Like?
We have seen no evidence Kavanaugh has done that work. Like Louie C K, and all his brethern, trying to re-surface as if they have paid a high enough price, the work would be evident. The shame, the grief, the horror of one’s own actions. The years of quite efforts to take responsibility, take ownership, behave with integrity in the world.
I liven Philly, with the Eagles, and formally Michael Vick. I a dog lover, and someone who expects that we be able to identify suffering in animals as not particularly different than our own suffering. I had no intention of ever forgiving Michael Vick for his years abusing dogs, of ever supporting my home team, if they continued to support this monster, and saw all of his displays of contrition to be trite. The first couple years. But years kept passing and he kept in the work. Most would have been happy to forget about his cruelty to dogs, but he actually kept it front and center with his acts of repair, so that others might change their ways. He kept up the work long after his career was at risk. That is what change looks like.
If Kavanaugh attempted to rape Ford, and he later realized the horror of his actions, we would know, because he would have sought her out to make repair. It would unlikely reduce the trauma that experience had in her life, but we would know he understood what he had done and sought redemption, at risk to himself. We would have seen him go back to his prep-school as an adult, to support programming that helps raise boys with empathy, who understand girls as their equals. That is what change looks like.
Most of the famous men who have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual abuse are not facing criminal charges. They should behave as someone who dodged a bullet and consider living in hiding for the rest of their lives. They should understand that their fame, and accolades were in lieu of prison, and feel incredibly fortunate to have lived as good of a life as they have, given the depravity of their actions and the trauma they have caused and damage they have done to other peoples’ lives.
If Louis CK, who I was personally broken hearted to learn of his actions, wants back in the lime light, how about he spend his incredible fortune and influence to produce vehicles for female comedians. For those he perpetrated offenses against, for those whose careers he attempted to thwart or derail in whiny pettiness, and other random female comedians as well. How about he do that for a decade? And maybe throw in some money and resource and influence and devotion to help groups that try to help boys understand the sameness between them and girls.
We Should Expect More of Men
It isn’t only men, but some women as well who want to brush off these egregious violations as just things boys and men do, that they can’t help, and that we should just forgive them for. I would suggest that for most of these women, this is in lieu of facing their own experiences of acquaintance rapes or “rapey” sex, where they reluctantly surrendered, knowing it would only be worse if they didn’t. Or their husbands who occasional strike them, “but are otherwise a good husband”, or their father’s who dominated their mothers, “but that is how it was back then”.
Sure, some men and women can be quite different from each other. That may or may not have biological elements, that surely has some hormonal elements, and most assuredly has bucket loads of societal evidence. But differences in expectations of humanity? Really? Men shouldn’t be expected to see women as being just as filled with their own feelings, ambitions, dreams, rights, capacities, ect, etc, etc, as them? Please.
We all have sufficient access to proof that men and women are capable of the same achievements, same life fulfillment, same range of emotionality. Like with race, nationality, economic resource, etc, etc, we are all much more alike than we are different. And surely, we need a supreme court justice, who will make rulings for all of us, know that.
Smith is and analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additional the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.