As details emerge about what Christine Blasey Ford has described as an attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh when they were both in high school, a peculiar reverse nostalgia about the 1980s seems to be taking hold. It was so long ago, this line of argument insists. Things were so different, teens were so different, sex was so different.
In a now-deleted tweet, conservative gadfly John Podhoretz attempted to defend Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh: “If you want to know how pop culture viewed this stuff in the 1980s, consider the treatment of the intimacy between Lewis and Betty in ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’ The movie was considered a sweet raunchy delight then. Now…”
Writing in support of Ford, Helaine Olen struck a similar note: “In the early 1980s, the concept of what we now call date or acquaintance rape barely existed. Instead, teenage girls and women were routinely warned to stay away from groups of men, especially if alcohol was involved. If they ignored that advice — and almost all of us did, at least occasionally — we shared in the blame for any bad outcome.”
It’s true that some things were different in the ’80s. Our corrupt, incompetent celebrity GOP president didn’t hate immigrants nearly as much as our current one does. We still used aerosol hairspray, and lots of it. And yes, teen sex comedies were a whole lot more rapey than they are today.
Here’s what wasn’t different. Public school sex education was as inadequate as it is today. Sexual violence was just as damaging to victims as it is now. And guys back then knew, just as they know today, when women didn’t want to have sex with them.
Guys back then knew, just as they know today, when women didn’t want to have sex with them.
If Ford is telling the truth — and I believe she is — Kavanaugh knew she didn’t want him to touch her. That’s why, according to Ford, he didn’t ask her if she wanted to go upstairs with him and his buddy, instead taking her by surprise in the hallway and dragging her into the bedroom. That’s why, as she tells it, he already had the music turned up loud, even before she walked up the stairs. That’s why, she says, he muffled her screams and held her down. The culture of the decade may have given Kavanaugh every reason to think he’d get away with assault, but his actions reveal that even way back then, he was under no illusions about how Ford felt about it.
It’s easy to imagine things are different now, and if you squint at pop culture in the right way, you can convince yourself it’s true. But as a sex educator and anti-rape activist, I can tell you it’s not.
I can’t count the number of sexual assault victims who’ve told me they couldn’t bring themselves to name what had been done to them until years later. And woke teen sex farces like ”Blockers” notwithstanding, far too many young people are still being raised to think of sex as something that boys take from girls. Too many adults think that too ― including President Donald Trump, the man who picked Kavanaugh for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.
It’s easy to imagine things are different now, and if you squint at pop culture in the right way, you can convince yourself it’s true.
Most kids right here and now in 2018 still aren’t getting the most basic sex ed, let alone the kind of comprehensive sex ed that can shift boys’ approach to sex from dominance to collaboration. This massive failure leaves the ground fertile for sexual violence of all kinds. Many kids still don’t have an adult they can tell if someone tries to rape them, for fear they will be judged or disbelieved. For many of the students I talk to, I am the first adult they’ve ever encountered who’s willing to speak openly with them about sex and rape. Their relief at finding me breaks my heart every time.
From the stories they tell me, and from stories on the nightly news, I can confidently and angrily report that the kind of attack Ford says she suffered is still far, far too common. Even more chillingly, while it’s entirely plausible that Kavanaugh’s categorical denial is a lie (after all, he’s lied about so much already), it’s also totally possible that Kavanaugh really doesn’t remember assaulting Ford.
The kind of guy who would set a trap with his buddy to gang rape a girl they kind of know is the kind of guy who doesn’t really think of women as human at all, no matter the decade. That kind of guy knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he just doesn’t think it’s that important. He thinks about it as a fun night. Or he doesn’t think about it much at all. But his victims do. Ford describes herself as having been “derailed” by the alleged assault for years.
Ford describes herself as having been 'derailed' by the alleged assault for years.
I know the feeling. In 1988, I was drunk in the front seat of a truck outside a high school house party much like the one Ford describes. It was the first time I’d ever been drunk, and a guy I kind of knew was holding me tight in the front seat, pawing at me while I tried to wriggle away. I don’t remember how I finally wrenched myself free, but eventually, like Ford, I fled to the relative safety of a locked bathroom, trying to calm myself down, willing myself to sober up. I, too, told no one at the time. I was worried word would get back to my boyfriend and that he would think I had cheated. I feared that my parents would find out there had been alcohol at this party and that they would never let me go to another one.
That was 30 years ago, and this is the first time I’ve ever told the story in public. I can still feel the queasy mix of vodka and fear churning in my stomach. I am still haunted by the question of what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to break free.
The ’80s were not so long ago, and we are not so far removed from them as we want to believe. If we want things to truly be different in another 30 years, we can’t afford another justice who thinks women are less human than he is.
Jaclyn Friedman is the author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. She hosts the podcast “Unscrewed.”