Brett Kavanaugh Hasn't Left High School
Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook inscription and his behavior since then reminds us that high school is where predators find their power.
Photo credit: Georgetown Preparatory School Yearbook 1983 year; (R) Andrew Harnik/Pool via Bloomberg.
Brett Kavanaugh sat before the Senate committee last week, his open weeping punctuated by moments of white, hot anger and petulance directed at Democrats for "unleashing" the ordeal in which he currently finds himself involved. That being the accusations of rape and sexual assault he is said to have committed in high school. The effects of which, he says, have destroyed his family and will keep him from working—and potentially even "coaching sports"—ever again.
The testimony given to the Senate Judiciary Committee stands to reflect the image Kavanaugh has painted of himself as a Boy Scout of sorts; a good Catholic kid who worked his "butt off," placing academics, team sports, and charity above all. However, his high school yearbook has become a key piece of evidence indicating a lifestyle that doesn't quite match his testimony recollections of his days at Georgetown Prep.
As the allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh came to light—propelled by accounts of high school rape, assault, and predatory behavior given by Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick—Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for Supreme Court Justice has rested his innocence on that Boy Scout image, with its sheen of innocuousness typical of a privileged prep school kid. But a literal read between the lines of his yearbook inscription alludes to keggers, blackouts, a "Devil's Triangle," "ralphing," and the phrase “Renate Alumni," referring to possible boasting about the sexual conquest of a young woman, Renate Schroder, from a nearby Catholic girls’ school. He adamantly contests anything untoward about the "Renate Alumni." But a limerick written by another friend of Kavanaugh's in the "Renate Alumni" in the same yearbook suggests that maybe it wasn't so innocent.
Kavanaugh and his supporters in the Republican party contend that the allegations and hearings are simply a tactic from the Left to block his appointment, and that if a high school yearbook can stand against a Supreme Court nominee, we've been, as Kavanaugh put it, taken "to a new level of absurdity."
But that yearbook is an artifact of a time before he held a gavel, when partying and drinking were, in fact, such a regular occurrence they required a calendar to keep track of the ragers; where it is possible to see traces of a culture where the degradation of women was enabled by the insular nature of private schools and the advantages that come with wealth and being a white male that afforded these boys protection. What's found in those 35-year-old pages functions as an unsettling reminder that high school can be the time in a young man’s life where he discovers his power as a predator.
While studies have found that gender dynamics are instilled since birth, and understanding of consent, power, and bodily autonomy can and should begin to be inculcated soon after, high school is where sexual abuse and the misogynistic, sexist power structures that reinforce it seem to blossom ; predatory boys come of age, and the world around them often provides an environment for their unsettling behavior to flourish.
RAINN reports that women ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. More specifically, according to the US Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), approximately one in five female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by someone they’re dating. A study funded by the Department of Justice reports that only 16 percent of victims of rape come forward to the authorities, and that victims of drug-facilitated or incapacitated rape are less likely to report their assault for a variety of reasons, including not wanting others to find out about the rape, fear of retaliation, and uncertainty about "whether a crime was committed or harm was intended."
Simply put, it happens often, girls are mostly at risk, and they’re too scared to say anything. Sexual assault and harassment in its many forms is as normalized and commonplace as ditching gym, sneaking a cigarette in the parking lot, drinking beers at a party, or making a gross joke at a girl's expense and memorializing it in the pages of a school publication.
These numbers, however, mostly look at the white population, as rape survivors are often lumped into one group, ignoring racial, ethnic, economic, and environmental factors that play a major role in their victimization. A study by the Women of Color Network found that while 80 percent of rapes are reported by white women, women of color are more likely to be assaulted than white women. Reports have found that schools will go so far as to punish victims of assault, especially if they are Black and poor students. High schools across the country are fertile ground for sexual assault and violence, and marginalized groups are most vulnerable. Targeting vulnerable communities—be it women, people of color, the poor, the disabled or any intersection of these and other points of marginalization—is a lot easier when you hold power as a wealthy, white man.
As such, it's often in elite private schools similar to Kavanaugh's alma mater where students' privilege—both racial and economic—can particularly offer a blanket of protection from punishment. It's in these spaces that sexual misconduct and abuse has gone unchecked, ignored, or unreported as a result of this exclusive, isolationist environment. In elite private schools, people who are victimized must contend with the fear of a loss of a specific set of opportunities and ostracism from said community if they come forward, especially against someone from a powerful, connected family. As in the Stanford rape case of Brock Turner, a victim has to face a system that shows greater compassion and concern for the perpetrator of a sex crime, using alcohol as both the damning evidence reasoning her attack and the excuse for leniency against her attacker. Seemingly because he's a nice, white, wealthy boy from a good family.
In 2016, the Boston Globe uncovered a deep, long-standing history of abuse in New England private schools perpetuated by staff against students; The Atlantic has also reported on the experiences of girls in private schools in New England, which mirror the experiences of girls at elite schools across the country, and the deeply entrenched misogyny that surrounds them. There are many documented cases of the culture of these prestigious spaces being embroiled in sexual abuse, violent hazing and shady financial scandals.
The exclusiveness of the atmosphere of these schools creates an environment where predatory behavior is powered by entitlement and viewed as a prerogative of youth, which leads to a belief that consequences don't appear to exist for these young people at the same level they do for others. And it's easy to believe that when the systems in place has supported this time and time again.
While Renate Schroeder, now Schroeder Dolphin, initially signed a letter in support of Kavanaugh, she later discovered the inscription and provided a statement to the Times: “I don’t know what ‘Renate Alumnus’ actually means. I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things, but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way.”
Schroeder Dolphin’s discovery of this demeaning ridicule that enveloped her in high school and is now hounding her decades later speaks to the conversations boys are encouraged to have among their cohort, and how that talk presents a challenge for them to see women as equals or even human, especially because it's been socialized as something that's part of being a boy.
It’s in high school that boys’ popularity is gained by the allusion of sexual prowess or experience. Sure, kids might boast about kissing a girl in the playground (which in itself plays into early inculcation of rape culture), but high school (and yes, often middle school) is where the reward becomes greater, and thus the need to achieve that experience becomes a more desperate necessity. They’re becoming men, and a defining signal of achieving that, of coming of age, is having sex. The pressure to live up to a toxic standard of masculinity as college looms, increases. The locker room banter becomes more than just talk, and the sense of urgency to deliver on their boasts grows. Without intervention, predatory, abusive behavior can become even more deeply entrenched in a young person as they grow into adulthood.
The yearbook inscription is just one common manifestation of male bonding through abuse. Boys will trap a girl in a bathroom and force oral sex upon her, create a “rape game” for laughs, participate in a violent gang rape, or harass girls by incessantly asking them out.
Then there's the everyday microaggressions of slut shaming or sexualizing a girl for kissing a boy, wearing a short skirt, or simply just being more physically developed. High schools are rife with gendered discrimination that reinforces the notions that young women can be abused, deserve to be abused, and will often be revictimized for verbalizing their abuse or watching their abuser evade serious punishment. Dress codes that target the size of a girl’s shirt strap or the visibility of her bra, for example, adds to their sexualization; girls must cover up because their bodies are too distracting for the boys and men around them, immediately placing the blame of their sexualization on them even though that construct is being forced upon them. That sexualization helps bolster the idea that “she was asking for it” if a young woman is assaulted.
The effects of high school rape culture are lasting, both for the boys who gain their power at the expense of the girls they violate, and the girls who are branded sluts and whores. Popularity at a prep school full of affluent kids and their well-connected parents means greater access to prestigious colleges, internships, fraternities, jobs, and, in cases like Kavanaugh’s, the power to become a member of the most powerful judicial body in the US.
Watching Kavanaugh refuse to admit during his testimony that he drank to excess on occasion, doubling down on his Boy Scout persona with aggravated fervor, felt like he was using an old teenage tactic for avoiding punishment–stick to the story until you're in the clear, no matter the evidence. Denying he drank to excess when there are witnesses that state they've seen it seems like shaky ground to stand on when trying to prove innocence.
But Republican leaders are sticking by him, asking: “Even if it’s all true does it disqualify him?”, or railing about alleged political power plays trying to keep Kavanaugh out of the court. Continuously referring to Kavanaugh as a victim (with Blasey Ford as an afterthought), sends the message that a woman's safety is never guaranteed but that men’s stature and power in our society can continue to rise at their expense. As the requested FBI investigation gets underway and stories of Kavanaugh's aggressive, drunk behavior as a youth begin to leak (including a New York Times report of a bar fight instigated by Kavanaugh following a UB40 concert), more cracks form in his image of respectability.
As the information he gave in his testimony comes back to haunt him now that it's been found that he either misrepresented the truth or was incorrect in his account of the facts, it's unclear how long he can play chicken with authorities and the public at large. Republican voters don't seem to care; Brett Kavanaugh is still that high school boy that can yell, cry, and defiantly evade questioning simply because he doesn't like that he has to be questioned at all. But his bros are still rallying behind him and the White House is only now allowing the FBI to interview whomever is necessary in their investigation, only after it was reported that there had been interference. Republicans are working to protect him, because in doing so they are ultimately protecting themselves.
What we could grow to understand from this behavior, if anything, is the damage that occurs when predatory action is empowered by privilege, and perhaps one day, how we can stop it. Can men who have been socialized to dehumanize and harm women change? Is it possible to grow out of patterns of predatoriness? Some say yes. Even so, the power a male abuser holds is able to flourish from his teenage years into adulthood because it is fiercely protected at the cost of women. Even as Kavanaugh sits under the glaring gaze of media entities, government agencies, and public at large, the “Renate Alumni” lives on because our society works to ensure it does.
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