We Prioritize Boys' Suffering At Girls' Expense
Controversy over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination has raised the question: Should 17-year-old boys be held responsible later in life for alleged sexual assault? That depends on whose pain we value most.
Once, when I was in the third grade, I hit a kid named Andrew (not his real name) during a game of tag. Instead of tagging each other with our hands, we wielded yellow foam sticks, perhaps meant to encourage us to gently tap each other’s bodies instead of tackling each other to the ground. But it backfired; I whacked Andrew with my baton, and as he tried to twist away from me, it caught him in the eye.
“What the hell!” he screamed. When I stepped tentatively toward him to see if he was okay, he shoved me in the chest. He was crying. I felt a terrible hurricane of guilt storm around my insides as the gym teacher led him away to the nurse’s office.
That night, I was wracked with indecision over how to make this right. On some level I knew that he’d gotten mad at me more because of his embarrassment than because of the pain. But I hated to think of him in any sort of pain at all, emotional or otherwise. He was a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed kid, one of my earliest crushes, who held some begrudging respect for me because even though I was deeply uncool, I could keep up with him during soccer at recess. I wanted to preserve whatever vaguely positive feelings he held about me. I wanted to be a good person.
In a rare move, I asked my mother for advice, that night at dinner, and she recommended I write him an apology card. I wrote a little note on a folded piece of construction paper and left it on Andrew’s chair early that morning. I watched from across the classroom as he and a friend of his opened it, then laughed and laughed and laughed. My guilt soured into humiliation. I’d been so worried about his pain, only to have it thrown back in my face.
Since I was very small, like many other people who are socialized as girls and women, I’ve been hyperaware of boys’ suffering. That third-grade incident a lifetime ago — my bright yellow baton whirling through the air, making contact — is still burned into my memory. I remember exactly how Andrew looked when he cried. I remember how terrible I felt, both that day and the next, when my clumsy attempt to seek forgiveness was met with laughter and scorn. I remember that time the way I remember many other instances when I hurt the boys or the men I’ve known, either inadvertently or intentionally — my first boyfriend, who would stab his thigh with a pencil when he thought I was about to leave him, and the kid in middle school I once made fun of for wearing a fleece covered in cat hair to class, a mean joke I still regret.
Throughout my life, I have felt so attuned to men’s feelings that sometimes I prioritized them over my own (all the sex I didn’t want but had anyway) — either to make those men feel better or to protect myself from their wrath; sometimes both. How to soothe them without making them feel emasculated is a balance I never quite nailed. Girls are the ones who are supposed to care about boys’ feelings, boys’ opportunities, boys’ lives. But are boys taught, in return, to care about ours?
I’d just developed breasts when one of my best friends locked me into a crawl space closet with her brother. We were at their house when I wiggled into the space — it was a little nook near my friend's bedroom where we liked to hang out — and I only realized that my friend wasn’t the person who’d crawled in after me until after the door had already been shut.
I yelled at my friend to open up, but she'd gone off somewhere else in the house. I’m still not sure what exactly she was thinking, locking me in there. We pranked each other a lot, acted more like rough-and-tumble boys than what you typically expect of preteen girls — both of us dressed in knee-length denim shorts and basketball tanks. I was a tomboy, a latent lesbian, and maybe she was too. We lost touch after high school.
Girls are the ones who are supposed to care about boys’ feelings, boys’ opportunities, boys’ lives. But are boys taught, in return, to care about ours?
In the crawl space, her brother — who was even less popular than we were, older than us — awkwardly maneuvered his way on top of me, pinning both my hands to the floor. I didn’t move, idly curious about what might happen.
“Lift up your shirt,” he said. I can still hear the sound of his voice issuing that command. He didn’t pronounce his R’s, making the word “shirt” sound dirty and absurd. I laughed at him, and he tightened his hold on my wrists. “Lift up your shirt.”
“No,” I said. I felt a pulse of pleasure that a boy, however gross to me, found my gangly, masculinely dressed body desirable; it was pleasure mixed in with a little disgust, a little horror, and, deep in the recesses of my mind, a twinge of fear. But my friend wouldn’t really leave us in here for too long, would she?
“Do it,” he said. I wonder, now, what kept him from just removing my shirt himself. Did he think that pinning me to the floor in a locked room was within the bounds of socially acceptable conduct, but actually ripping my clothes off my body would be a step too far?
I don’t know how long we lay there, having the exact same exchange over and over — “Do it.” “No.” — before I started to get both bored and slightly afraid, and fought my way out from underneath him. He was bigger, but I was taller. I was maybe 12, and he would have been 15. After she heard our bodies banging against the walls as I tried to free myself, my friend opened the closet door.
By the time I got to high school, I met a lot of different teenage boys, and dated a few of them, too. One strongly encouraged me to perform certain sex acts long before I was ready. Another, sensing my slight hesitation during one of our hookups in his childhood bedroom, immediately pulled back from me, put his clothes on, and spent the rest of the night stroking my hair. Yet another was my friend for many years, whom I loved and admired in part because he never made me feel uncomfortable or as if I was only a sexual prospect, until the day, after long biding his time, he finally did.
When I first realized I was gay, at the tail end of college, I found it extraordinarily difficult to leave behind the world of men. I’d been with the same guy for nearly five years and thought we were going to get married someday. He was sweet and honorable and funny and kind. Years before the oft-abused hashtag existed, he proved to me that #NotAllMen had the impetus for violence crackling just beneath their fingertips; that not all men were sexual predators. As a 17-year-old, he was as good to me as he was when we parted ways as newly minted grown-ups.
But not everyone seems to agree there’s a marked difference between violent young men and nonviolent ones. In light of Christine Blasey Ford’s recently surfaced allegation of sexual assault against Supreme Court justice hopeful Brett Kavanaugh, Twitter and cable news alike have been flooded with the alarm of politicos, pundits, and opinion writers who do not seem to think that sprawling on top of a girl, grinding against her, trying to take her clothes off, and covering her mouth when she tries to scream is actually all that rare or all that noteworthy. They wonder if committing sexual assault in high school should "deny us chances later in life." Others have encouraged us to assume that even if Ford’s account is true, “Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should this be disqualifying?”
The brouhaha over Kavanaugh’s nomination, the committee vote for which has been canceled, recalls similar debates during the criminal case against Brock Turner, the former star Stanford swimmer who was convicted in 2016 of three counts of felony sexual assault, and whose appeal was denied last month. Should a young man who was just 19 when he "sought only outercourse" be subjected to a “life-ruining" sentence because of a little booze-heavy youthful indiscretion? In Turner’s case, his supporters argued he didn’t deserve the ruination that would supposedly befall him should he spend just a few months in jail. To be clear, Kavanaugh’s situation is different — he hasn’t been charged with or convicted of sexual assault, and he doesn’t have to face jail time or register as a sex offender. He merely may not be able to serve on the nation’s highest court, shaping public policy and culture for decades to come. As writer Moira Donegan recently tweeted: “In many #metoo scandals, the withholding of superlative rewards from allegedly abusive men is cast as a cruel punishment.”
The assumption that teenagers and young adults who make (violent, criminal) mistakes shouldn’t be punished with consequences later in life is, of course, a benefit afforded almost exclusively to moneyed white boys, who often avoid the more severe fates of their less privileged counterparts: the black boys and men ferried on the school-to-prison pipeline, serving longer prison sentences for lesser, nonviolent crimes.
Perhaps some #MeToo’d men and their defenders also believe that their alleged crimes were minor too, if they were crimes at all. At least, they were too minor to warrant anything so severe as an admission of guilt, or an apology, or a proposed commitment to self-betterment — let alone professional or criminal consequences. They’ve pitted their pain from being accused directly against the pain of the women accusing them, and it’s clear whose pain we’re expected to care about more. “I feel sorry for a lot of these men,” wrote Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times, “but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all.” Put another way, by writer Heather Havrilesky: “[C]ruel men believe they deserve redemption and eventual exaltation simply because they've suffered. Imagine if women believed that. Imagine if a woman's suffering were even a passing concern.”
“If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried,” a lawyer for the White House recently told Politico, in response to the Kavanaugh allegations. Perhaps he’s right. Every man should at least be actively sifting through their past experiences to figure out if there’s anything they should be worried about, anything for which they might seek redemption. I have a feeling that some of my strongest memories of discomfort and pain at the hands of boys and men are memories of mine, and mine alone. I still remember that crawl space near my best friend’s bedroom, and what happened there. Does the boy who pinned me down remember it, or has that morning blended into the fog of his every other sunny teenage summer?
Or maybe, if he remembers it at all, he remembers it differently. After I was raped by a different man, he texted me the next day to tell me what a good time he’d had. His perspective eclipsed my own so completely, so extremely, that it took me years to pick myself up from underneath the weight of it.
Does the boy who pinned me down remember it, or has that summer morning blended into the fog of his every other sunny teenage summer?
Conversations continue to swirl about what, exactly, we’re supposed to do with all these #MeToo’d men; now, yet another question we’re facing is whether we should attempt to hold alleged sexual assaulters accountable for things they did years, even decades before, when they were teenagers. Writing for the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan suggests that “teenagers make mistakes, some of them serious. One measure of a kid’s character is what he or she does afterward.” She tells the story of a boy who tried to rape her apologizing for it a few years later, which encouraged her to forgive him. Situations will, of course, vary, but at this point, merely acknowledging that assaults, attempted or otherwise, actually happened, seems like a necessary first step toward whatever else is supposed to happen next. Flanagan points out that, if Ford’s story is true, Kavanaugh clearly doesn’t apply here. “He never tried to make amends, never took responsibility for what he did … by Ford’s account, Kavanaugh’s acts did cause lasting damage, and he has done nothing at all to try to make that right. And that is why the mistake of a 17-year-old kid still matters.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with Flanagan. Others will keep arguing that men accused of assault as teens were only 15, or 17, or 21, after all. Just kids. So long ago. And say an assault actually did happen, whether the accused remembers it or not; why bother doing anything about the situation now? It was just another party, just another night, just another girl. Some unremarkable, drunken sexual experience barely remembered the next morning, let alone the next month, or the next year, lost to the sinkhole where irrelevant memories are left to rot and disappear.
But those girls — kids at the time too — they all grow up. We grow up. And we remember. ●