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We Asked 17-Year-Olds About Brett Kavanaugh and Consent

Brett Kavanaugh's defenders say the Supreme Court nominee shouldn't be held accountable for the sexual assault he allegedly committed at age 17. Here's what 17-year-olds think.

by Marie Solis
Sep 25 2018, 3:59pm

Sean Locke/Stocksy/Broadly

When Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school party more than 30 years ago—when Kavanaugh was 17 years old—the Supreme Court nominee's defenders divided themselves into two camps.

There were those who said they believed Kavanaugh when he denied the allegations, saying no such incident had ever occurred. And then there were those who argued that even if Ford's account were true, Kavanaugh—who has since been accused of sexual misconduct by a second woman, Deborah Ramirez—shouldn't be held accountable for something he did when he was 17.

"Let's say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should this be disqualifying?" Bari Weiss, a columnist at the New York Times, told MSNBC last week.

Fox News contributor Stephen Miller chalked up Ford's account of Kavanaugh restraining her and attempting to force himself on her at a high school party to "drunk teenagers playing seven minutes in heaven."

Rod Dreher, an editor at the American Conservative, wrote in a tweet, "I do not understand why the loutish, drunken behavior of a 17-year-old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53-year-old judge."

And Utah Senator Orrin Hatch—who will question both Ford and Kavanaugh during their impending hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and eventually vote to confirm Kavanaugh or not—has said that if Ford's allegations are true, it shouldn't have any bearing on senators' assessment of his character.

"The judge, who I know very, very well, is an honest man, said this didn’t happen," Hatch said. "If that was true, I think it would be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today, That’s the issue. Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is."

Broadly spoke to 17-year-olds to see how these comments sat with them. Do 17-year-olds today understand the contours of consent and sexual assault? Do they expect to be held accountable for their actions now, at 17? Should they expect the same decades from now, at 53?

Some students, like 17-year-old Daania, felt adults should be allowed room for "reform and growth," to learn from the mistakes of their youth. Others thought the allegations against Kavanaugh shouldn't "dictate his future," echoing the language some use to talk about young men accused of sexual assault. But all—even those who emphasized Kavanaugh's "accomplishments" as a federal judge—told Broadly they thought age shouldn't be a factor in evaluating Ford's accusations. Seventeen-year-olds, they said, are old enough to make their own decisions and face the consequences of them.

One student, Avery, a 17-year-old from Washington, saw a frightening conclusion in the responses to the Kavanaugh allegations. Looking around, she saw a society telling her that there was no right time for alleged assailants to be held accountable for their behavior—that they could get away with it at any age.

"Whenever allegations of a past assault, like those against Kavanaugh, come up, the same narrative is always repeated: 'Why should he be punished for something that happened so long ago?'" Avery said. "On the other hand, when a young person—like Brock Turner, for example—is accused of sexual assault or rape, right after it happens, it’s: 'Why should we destroy his future over a mistake?'

"If predators shouldn’t be punished in the now, and they shouldn’t be punished in the future," she wondered, "then when?"

Below are what Avery's peers had to say. These responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alessandra, Utah

"I am seventeen. I am expected to be responsible, and I expect to be held accountable, whether it’s at work, school, home, or elsewhere. Consent is not incomprehensible to people my age."

Consent, assault, and rape are understood well before the age of 18. The law recognizes the weight of these heinous acts and punishes them accordingly when committed by and against minors. The arbitrary line drawn between 17 and 18 should not prevent Kavanaugh’s character from being impugned.

I am seventeen. I am expected to be responsible, and I expect to be held accountable—whether it’s at work, school, home, or elsewhere. Consent is not incomprehensible to people my age. When I, as a peer educator, teach consent to [others my age], what I am actually doing is adding nuance and firmly expressing its importance, because they are each already aware, despite all their differences, that it is wrong to assault someone.

Daania, Ohio

"The more that 17-year-olds are perceived as children, the less faith we put in the future of our world."

The more that 17-year-olds are perceived as children, the less faith we put in the future of our world. The more we paint over them, or us, as children, we first, justify inexcusable actions and second, invalidate their thoughts and ideas as childish and manic. When looking at Brett Kavanaugh, it’s crucial to not use his age as justification for his actions, as it implies a 17-year-old's decisions are meaningless.

While we must hold him accountable for his actions, we also cannot allow what occurred 36 years ago to overshadow his career and accomplishments. What exacerbates the issue is Kavanaugh hastily denying the accusation, and that is what truly speaks to his moral character. Brett Kavanaugh himself must take responsibility for his own actions, and the public must not throw excuses for the [alleged] assault, but we also must make room for reform and growth.

Samuel, Massachusetts

"As a 17-year-old I am disgusted by the fact that some people are saying that what someone did as a 17-year-old should not be judged when they are older."

Yes, I do believe that 17-year-olds should be held accountable for their actions. Seventeen-year-olds do know the consequences of their actions. Moreover, as a 17-year-old I am disgusted by the fact that some people are saying that what someone did as a 17-year-old should not be judged when they are older. However, I do believe people mature, but they should still be held accountable for what they have done and how their actions have affected people’s lives.

Cameron, Washington

"You should be more than capable of grasping onto the simple concepts of consent and sexual assault."

It is very important that we hold 17-year-olds accountable for their actions. I believe that at this age, when you are almost out of school and a year away from being a legal adult where you are expected to be culpable, you should be more than capable of grasping onto the simple concepts of consent and sexual assault. We should not be just briskly brushing off Kavanaugh’s [alleged] behaviors as it just shows how we continue to allow and push the narrative of rape culture.

Why is it we coddle the alleged abuser and begin to discredit and have a total disregard for the victim? For someone like Kavanaugh, who is to be put into a position of power that is supposed to represent all the American people, it is salient that we hold someone like that accountable for such a transgression.

Avery, Washington

"If predators shouldn’t be punished in the now, and they shouldn’t be punished in the future, then when?"

Whenever allegations of a past assault, like those against Kavanaugh come up, the same narrative is always repeated: “Why should he be punished for something that happened so long ago?” On the other hand, when a young person—like Brock Turner, for example—is accused of sexual assault or rape right after it happens, it’s: “Why should we destroy his future over a mistake?” If predators shouldn’t be punished in the now, and they shouldn’t be punished in the future, then when? When do their crimes matter, when do the lives of their victims matter, when should the survivors be able to get justice?

Seventeen-year-olds absolutely are capable of understanding what rape and sexual assault is and we can and should be held accountable for our actions, no matter if it’s when we’re 17 or when we’re 53.

Every survivor of sexual assault deserves justice, no matter how young their assailant is or how much time has passed.

Julia, Ohio

"By portraying Kavanaugh and other teenage sexual assailants as children, we invalidate the impact of their deliberate actions through deflecting the blame from them."

Seventeen-year-olds are a year from being seen and tried as adults. However, a one-year change in age shouldn’t be the single indicator that people who most likely have the same level of maturity that they did a year ago are now responsible for their actions. People commit sexual assault at any age, and the reasons behind it don't change with development of maturity.

Although we should not ignore his actions, it is also important to take into account that Kavanaugh himself is not pushing the narrative of age, but instead denying the accusations outright. If it is proven that the accusations are true and he lied, a new negative sign could be brought up. We should not let a choice that he made at 17 dictate his future, but instead place more focus on the possibility that 38 years later he was willing to cover it up.

Malavika, Florida

"We’ve all made stupid mistakes when we were seventeen. We’ve run red lights. We’ve lost our keys. We’ve skipped class. But there’s one thing that should never belong on any list of stupid teenage mistakes, and that is sexual assault."

We’ve all made stupid mistakes when we were seventeen. We’ve run red lights. We’ve lost our keys. We’ve skipped class. But there’s one thing that should never belong on any list of stupid teenage mistakes, and that is sexual assault.

I’d like to think that I live in a world where the individuals who get to decide the future of women’s rights have more than a basic grasp of consent, respect, and decency. But here’s the thing—men like Brett Kavanaugh have gotten away with behavior like this for far too long, insulated by a society that rewards them for their misogynistic attitudes. And yes, maybe boys will be boys. But you know what else they will be? Held accountable for their actions like the rest of us.

Ananya, New Jersey

"A 17-year old should be held accountable for their actions, and be able to understand consent, because consent is simply part of a decent human being."

A 17-year old should be held accountable for their actions, and be able to understand consent, because consent is simply part of a decent human being. From a much younger age than 17, children are expected to realize what it takes to be a kind human being—what it is to share, have manners, be respectful to adults, etc. Consent is part of this moral compass, and by 17, an individual should be able to realize that something they are doing is wrong.

Even if consent isn't taught by parents, peers, or sexual education, sexual assault really comes down to someone not having or listening to a voice tells them: "This is wrong."

Shannon, Connecticut

"My life is worth more than can be dismissed as the carnage of a teenage boy's mistakes. My future should not be predicated on society’s refusal to hold men accountable."

No 17-year-old girl has the privilege of ignoring the reality of sexual assault. It lurks in the shadows of the decisions we make, dictating whether or not we feel safe in our own bodies. At seventeen, I am a first-year student at Yale, at the same college where Kavanaugh once belonged to a fraternity infamous for demeaning women, a vulgar organization that still exists decades later. There is no reason why 17-year-old boys should not be considered old enough to understand the parameters of consent; girls are consistently held responsible for their actions far earlier, even and especially when they are victims of assault themselves.

My life is worth more than can be dismissed as the carnage of a teenage boy's mistakes. My future should not be predicated on society’s refusal to hold men accountable.

Leila Ettachfini contributed reporting.

Correction: This story originally identified Senate Orrin Hatch as a senator of Iowa. He is a senator of Utah. We regret the error.

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