In the ongoing living nightmare that is the sexual assault allegations mounting against SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a frequent defence used by the right-wing media in their attempts to diminish the stories of his accusers (at least the ones who aren’t outright claiming it never happened) is the old “boys will be boys” excuse. They claim that this is normal behaviour for a teenage boy, that they meant nothing by it and were just joking around, and that Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick are simply exaggerating harmless events for political gains. These assumptions are vile and destructive and enable the cycle of violence that keeps toxic masculinity alive in our society, but they are of course far from new.
Survivors of sexual harassment and assault have been forever seen as hypersensitive and untrustworthy, but especially so for those whose experience didn’t go as far as rape. They are made to be seen like what they went through was nothing because they weren’t “actually harmed”. But physical damage isn’t required to cause trauma. Sometimes, mental and psychological effects can be just as or even more damaging, leaving scars on the soul that may never heal. I know this because, though I never experienced anything quite as harrowing as Dr. Ford et al, I spent my adolescence in an environment not too dissimilar to Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep, and the scars I received there are still bleeding.
My parents, in the hopes of improving my education, sent me to a prestigious UK boarding school at the age of twelve. As a pudgy closeted trans girl who was neither academically nor athletically inclined, I was like a ripe piece of meat dropped into the lion’s den of these entitled hormone monsters. I had spent most of my life up to this point in state education. Most of these boys had spent their entire lives in some form of privileged education, growing up in an environment that constantly reassured them that they were better than everyone else. I had no chance of making it out of here unscathed.
For six years, this was my life. This wasn’t just inconsequential gibing on the school playground. This became nearly every moment of my life not spent in a classroom. I couldn’t even sleep without fear of something happening to me. What I faced at that school encompassed a large span of the abuse spectrum. There was simple name calling and social rejection, which then might escalate to the spreading of disparaging rumours and public embarrassment, then on up to the stealing and/or destruction of personal belongings, followed by direct physical and emotional torment, all leading up to the ultimate act: borderline sexual abuse. Rarely did it reach this culmination point, but on the times it did, they were the moments that broke me the most.
Now let me make it clear: I am not a victim of rape or attempted rape, and the students involved probably wouldn’t classify what they did as sexual abuse. I do not want to conflate what I endured with survivors of far more despicable acts. But on the other hand, and this is what so many of these allegation deniers so infuriating, that doesn’t make what DID happen to me OK.
The shameful acts inflicted upon me and, worse, the ones I was forced to inflict upon myself, still haunt me to this day. They didn’t know I was a girl at the time, and neither did I fully to be honest, but if I had been a cis girl enduring these events, there’s no question what I endured would be classified as sexual abuse. And it’s not like this was info privy only to me and one or two abusers. They told their friends about it. Sometimes, they even filmed it and shared it with who knows how many people.
And the worst part is I was made to feel like I deserved it. My bullies saw everything they did to me as a joke. The vast majority of the time, the other boys just stood there and watched; sometimes they were even coerced to join in. Any time I looked for help from teachers, my pleas were usually brushed off. I was told I needed to take a joke better, to man up and learn to put up with the changing room banter. And why should they have believed me? The boys I kept talking about were model students in their eyes, doing the school proud in their studies and sports performance and acting perfectly mature whenever they were around. From their optics, they thought I was being overly sensitive and needed to mature. But that doesn’t mean they had to do effectively nothing, and by doing so it just enabled my tormentors’ behaviour. And no, I didn’t tell the teachers about the sexual stuff. I was shamed and embarrassed into silence, and I feared the teachers would brush it away just like everything else.
I was gaslit by this constant torment into believing that I was the problem and that no one was willing to help me. I was constantly told that I was an anti-social freak, that all of the girls thought I was weird and disgusting (and any time they showed signs of sympathy was just disingenuous pity), and that I’d never achieve anything in life. I vividly remember one time, a boy literally grabbed my head, forced me to stare into his eyes, and directly told me that I was worthless and that nobody could ever like me. I owe that one moment for why I, to this day, struggle keeping eye contact with people in conversations.
Six years of this does a lot of damage to a developing mind, and I’m still unravelling the number it did on mine. I went from a shy but good-natured child to a cold and perpetually anxious human being. I was forced to try and make myself the kind of person this school would accept, essentially disassociating my mind from my body, and it only further drove me into depression. Some days, I could cope just fine. Others, I struggled to even stay sane. Sometimes, it would take just a few little acts to drive me over the edge, and that’s exactly what happened on the day of my vain attempt at suicide at age fourteen. I didn’t really want to die that day. It was just a last-ditch attempt at getting the help I needed. It never came.
If you met me between 18 and 24 and found me a bit distant and odd, it was because of experiences like this. This period of my life made me harbour a deep mistrust of people and their intentions. I’m often still waiting for that moment everyone will turn around and laugh at me. I know the real world doesn’t work like that, and I’ve done my best to fight those fears and just be myself, but I was conditioned for years to expect that; I was made to believe it was what I deserved. I’m a much happier and more cognisant person these days, surrounded by friends who do care about me and love me for who I am, and that’s mainly come from deprogramming everything I learnt about who I had to be at that school and discovering who I want to be.
And you think now maybe these people regret their actions? That they too have moved on with their lives and learnt to become their own independent people? Some of them, maybe. To be honest, I’ve cut ties with most everyone from that time in my life. But in a lot of cases, people brought up in that bubble tend to stay in it, and the Kavanaughs of the world continue to look back upon that time fondly, completely unaware of the trauma their adolescent fun left in others’ lives.
I remember seeing this post several years ago pop up in my Facebook timeline. I’ve censored all names, including my own deadname, but I’m the one this guy fondly remembers “tormenting”. He brings it up in passing like a good memory; a bonding experience between him and his friends. (The other boy referenced they were “wedgying” was Muslim by the way, so not much respect for others’ religious practices either). This was about three years after graduation. They still think this was funny. And they claimed I was the one who just needed to grow up.
Privileged educational environments like the one I suffered in and people like Brett Kavanaugh thrived in are a breeding ground for the worst kind of toxic masculinity. Children and adolescents are being thrown into these environments and asked to sink or swim, and those who prosper in these places go into adult life with an enormous sense of entitlement. Some of them experience the real world for the first time then and realise their behaviour is wrong, but many don’t. Mainly the ones who end up in politics.
I’ve known many a Brett Kavanaugh in my life, and if he’s the kind of person who still holds what he did in high school as a highlight in his life, he’s not someone who should represent the people of America. I can only imagine the horrors his victims have endured, but from my experience I have a pretty good idea what it’s like to be subjected to the fleeting whims of an entitled brat who has never been punished for their arrogance.
This culture of toxic masculinity needs to end, and a good place to start is to stop enabling this kind of behaviour in our schools. Stop teaching rich kids that they are better than everyone else. Stop excusing reprehensible behaviour because they are good at maths or can throw a ball really well. Stop belittling the experiences of victims and telling them they should “man up” and learn to be more like their oppressors to survive. Future generations should not have to put up with backwards crap like this, and we can make a difference if we make sure these abusers can’t use their privilege to bully the entire world when they become adults.