Saturday night, at a swank party hosted by a dear friend, I found myself across from two guys who are my age-ish, which is to say, Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh’s age-ish, which is to say in our early 50s.
At my friend’s urging, I’d just met and instantly clicked with the wife of one of the guys, a brilliant feminist filmmaker. The conversation—books and TV, politics, the generalized clusterfuck that is parenting—left me feeling understood and connected in that way that reminds you why it’s important to slap on some concealer and drag your tired butt out to parties even if Netflix beckons. These were clearly my people.
‘It’s like, who didn’t do something stupid when they were in high school?’ he said.
Eventually the women drifted away, and one of the men raised the topic of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination and the accusation by a then-anonymous woman that he sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school in the ‘80s.
“Listen, I’m no fan of Kavanaugh,” he said, “But when I heard it happened in high school, I was like…” he made a pfft sound and flicked his hand as if to swat away a gnat.
“Oh yeah,” agreed the other man. “It’s like, who didn’t do something stupid when they were in high school?”
My boyfriend was sitting to my left, and I felt him stiffen. He knew what was coming.
The Question That Has to Be Asked
“Um, did you put your hand over a girl’s mouth to stifle her screams and try to tear her clothes off, making her fear for her life?” I asked, calm as you please, because I’ve been meditating like a maniac to get through these dark, tiring times—it really helps me to not kill people while discussing current events. Also this was far from the first time I’ve had a version of this conversation.
“God no! I only talked to girls who liked me first,” guy number one said. Nice! Point to him for the winning self-deprecation.
“And you?” I smiled at guy number two. “Did you attempt to rape anyone when you were in high school, shitfaced or sober?” He opened his eyes wide, shut his mouth and shook his head.
‘But high-school boys are idiots,’ he said. ‘We all did dumb things.’ My reply: ‘But no rape, right?…There’s a big difference.’
Then I waited, because this time I knew what was coming.
“Yeah, but high-school boys are idiots,” said the first guy. “We all did dumb things.”
(Breathe in, Stephanie. You are merely the screen onto which consciousness is projected, which is what the guy on my meditation app said that morning. Whatever that means. Exhale.)
“What dumb things did you do?” I asked, keeping my voice light and curious, rather than lawyerly. He made a reference to having partied pretty hard back in the halcyon days of John Hughes movies and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. I laughed and offered that my friends and I had gone to nightclubs and took some deeply foolish risks that only didn’t materialize because we were very lucky. We were all frontal-lobe developmentally deficient teenagers at some point. Brief nostalgic chuckling ensued.
“But no rape, right?” I persisted. “You didn’t do anything that harmed someone else on purpose, correct?” I asked. They both indicated that they had not. “There’s a big difference.”
They agreed, and then unleashed yet another series of “buts,” this time about how it was such a long time ago, and anyway, who knew if it was true? He might not be lying about the incident, one of them said, because he might truly not remember, hammered as he was. The ‘80s, amirite?
Breaking Down the Boys’ Club
It struck me then, as it often does, how easily guys, especially those who resemble many of the men who have been called out in #MeToo wave—mostly white, successful, socially connected—empathize with the men whose “lives are being destroyed” by women accusing them of sexual misconduct.*
My hunch is, at least for the guys who still don’t get it after a woman shines a light on the nuances of a situation like this, that they may be reminded of things they did that they knew crossed a line. Maybe they were much less odious things that nonetheless left them with lingering feelings of shame, years later.
Dr. Ford wasn’t at this party on this night, and so, in her absence, I felt I had to speak for her.
All these guys seem to see in Kavanaugh a guy just like them, who deserves every benefit of every doubt. They don’t see the woman at all. And these are often men who would call themselves feminists, who marry badass women, who raise strong daughters, and who otherwise are capable of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. I’d seen this blind spot more times than I can count, and in men I care deeply about.
It was time whip out my imaginary whiteboard and draw them a straight line of empathy to that woman, who we now know is Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychology professor at Stanford and Palo Alto College. She alleges that when she was 15 and Kavanaugh was also in high school, he held her down in a room at a house party, cranked the tunes to keep her screams from being heard, and tried to tear her clothes off. She wasn’t at this NYC party on this night, and so, in her absence, I felt I had to speak for her.
“Well, I was raped in high school and remember it vividly,” I said. “In fact, I, too, have had to talk about it in couple’s therapy, because, like this woman, it was deeply traumatic and affected my marriage. And, like her, I didn’t tell anyone at the time. Like her, I didn’t want to get in trouble for putting myself in the position where that might happen. Like her, I escaped before there was vaginal penetration, but it was pure hell, and I was messed up for many years after that. Yeah, he may not remember what he did to her, but it makes perfect sense to me that she remembers it.” Many nights that men don’t remember have resulted in women having PTSD for decades after.
I’ve learned—thank God—that it’s not my job to constantly make men feel good and that it does nobody any favors.
Then I took one last deep abdominal yoga breath and told myself that I didn’t need to apologize to these two dudes for pursuing such an uncomfortable conversational path. As I’ve soared past my 30s and 40s, I’ve learned—thank God—that it’s not my job to constantly make men feel good and that it does nobody any favors.
Long story short, they all of a sudden got very thirsty and had to find the bar, which just happened to be on the other side the party space from me. My boyfriend sighed, but smiled and squeezed my hand, and then the host of the party came over to yank me onto the dance floor.
Of course, they were playing 1980’s music, and of course I fell into the same moves I did when I went clubbing as teenagers with my girlfriends (this time my hip hurt, but hey…). I felt like a somewhat tired superhero, angry, but mildly elated about having said my piece.
Change doesn’t only happen when brave women like Anita Hill and Professor Blasey Ford lay themselves bare on CSPAN for the sake of other women. It happens when other women do it wherever they find themselves. If enough of us do, perhaps one day we won’t have to anymore.
*In quotes, of course, because if anyone bears responsibility for these “destroyed lives” it’s the men who committed the misconduct in the first place. Blame women much?
Stephanie Dolgoff has contributed to a a variety of titles as an editor and writer, including SELF, Glamour, “O” The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and many others. Her articles have also appeared in the New York Times and the New York Post. Her book, My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches From Just The Other Side of Young, was a New York Times national bestseller.