Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today was searing. Visibly terrified and audibly shaken, she was resolute while recounting the experience of a sexual assault so terrifying she thought she might die. When asked about her most enduring memory of the alleged assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she reverted to the language of science, to heartbreaking effect. ”Indelible in the hippocampus was the laughter,” she said. In other words, what she’s most remembered from the assault that cast a shadow over the rest of her life was the sound of two boys laughing while they tried to muffle her screams.
I grew up inside Ford’s world. I went to the all-girls National Cathedral School, one of a cabal of DC prep schools referenced in many of the articles and coverage of the Kavanaugh allegations. Our parties were usually with boys from St Albans, but also included kids from Kavanaugh’s school, Georgetown Prep, along with those from Landon, Holton-Arms, Maret and Sidwell Friends. I too attended Beach Week, an annual bacchanal of binge-drinking and hooking up, and also had my run-ins with the Rehoboth Beach police.
When I listen to Ford, all I can think is how remarkably lucky I was. More than living in the same place, I lived in the same teenage culture of the 1980s—one that celebrated drinking, was often unsupervised, and seemed designed to test limits. It was a culture of rampant sexism. The school my friends and I attended empowered us. And we had male friends who deeply respected women and understood consent. Still, for some of us, our version of “feminism” was about besting the boys at their drinking games.
Our drunken high-school parties enabled impressive acts of idiocy. At one party, a boy was so drunk he walked through a glass door. At another, a prominent Washington leader’s son drove down a street with friends hanging out of his parents’ car, swinging baseball bats in an effort to destroy as many side-view mirrors as possible.
What I didn’t think about as much at the time was that the boys at these parties also had a deep-seated sense of entitlement. To destroy cars and houses. To “have” girls or hurt them, with words, or, as is the case with many who have come forward, with attacks. When one friend had her first kiss with a boy in ninth grade, he told everyone she had given him a blow job. After the National Cathedral School convened a “Power Day” conference in 1989 at the Washington Cathedral, a band of boys from St Albans posted lists of their “Top 10 Oxymorons” —the top one being women in power. The act was an assault of our property, but the target was our sense of self-worth.
Some of my classmates, like my friend Brooke Singer, now a professor of new media at Purchase College, State University of New York, saw the sexism and called it out. Responding to the Top 10 Oxymorons list, Singer wrote in the St. Alban’s school newspaper, “derogatory comments, printed defamations, and violent physical behavior will not yield positive growth.” Others among us struggled to even see the misogyny that surrounded us clearly, much less find the language for the power dynamic we lived with: The boys called the shots and set the tone, the girls joined in. Yet even then, amidst our own privilege and entitlement, my friends and I were resolute that we would not want to send our future sons to St Albans. Something was not quite right.
Ford is not talking about this kind of everyday misogyny, but assault. Still, it was the everyday misogyny, the unbounded sense of entitlement, that clearly bred some men to believe they had a right to a woman’s body. Regardless of whether she chose to share it or not. The scenes that Ford describes—small gatherings at house parties, copious amounts of alcohol, people disappearing upstairs—is familiar. It could have been any of us. It turns out, it was many of us. I didn’t know how bad things could be, or how lucky I was.
The kind of behavior that was acceptable or unremarkable then is considered criminal now. This is progress, even if it feels glacial, even if watching a prosecutor grill Ford as if she’s on trial feels like a low point in partisan politics. My daughters will have the language to talk about casual sexism and sexual assault that I did not, and expectations of much more humane and equitable behavior.
Why didn’t I speak out more? I’m not sure I knew there was something to say back then. Now I am humbled, awed really, by the courage of those who did it then and are doing it now—not least of all Ford, who did not want to ruin her life, but felt she had to speak out for the rest of us.