I know the shame of sexual misconduct, twice over. From the perspective of both aggressor and victim. I feel awful about both roles.
My assault stories are from mid-1980s. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings and allegations he sexual assaulted women in the 1980s have forced my memories on the topic to the fore. And the public conversation today about Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford and others has led me to reframe my experience. To reflect more honestly on the unhealthy version of masculinity that both informed my willingness to violate a friend and heightened the pain I felt as a victim.
I was a junior in high school the spring of 1984. I went to Amherst Central High School, a public high school in a suburb of Buffalo, NY. Our school was more economically diverse than the tony private schools that have been spotlighted by the Kavanaugh hearings. But we hung out in much the same way it seems Kavanaugh and his crew did. Lots of beer and Risky Business-like parties at houses where the parents were out of town or absent.
I don’t remember the exact house where I committed a sexual transgression my junior year. But I remember the room where I “made a move,” in the language of the time. It was a teen boy’s bedroom. The Eurythmics were playing on a stereo. I was with a girl who was drunk, unsteady on her feet and nearly catatonic. I may have been drunk as well.
This was a girl I’d liked for a long time. At first, she seemed to want to make out. But after a while, she began sending signals that she wanted to stop. I don’t remember exactly whether she ever said “stop” or “no” directly, or I got the message from her squirming away. What I clearly remember, though, is that I didn’t stop when I should have. At a minimum, I kept kissing her. I think I may have fondled her breasts over her shirt.
I don’t think I went farther, and I’m glad of that.
But right away I had guilty feeling. And it has occasionally surfaced over the years. Especially in the past week, after hearing testimony from Christine Blasey Ford. In the past, I’ve considered what I did dishonorable — I failed to respect a girl properly. But the truth is that it was sexual misconduct. Mild sexual assault, even. To be sure, what I did wasn’t as bad as rape or what Christine Blasey Ford says Brett Kavanaugh did to her. Still, it was sexual contact with another without their consent. I’m ashamed of it.
Some people will say I have nothing to apologize for. They will call it a failed pass, maybe, or the innocent fumblings of adolescent romance.
But it wasn’t innocent. Both in the sense I knew it was wrong, and in the way the norms we had as young men in the 1980s robbed others of their innocence. Left them stricken and traumatized for years. Just look at Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching need to build two front doors in her home — such was her psychological need for escape routes after what happened to her at that party more than three decades ago.
I know a bit about such trauma, because of what happened to me during my senior year of high school.
I was sexually molested during a visit to the college I ultimately attended, Princeton University. It happened at an “arch sing” — a tradition where acapella singing groups perform under a building archway. During this particular evening concert, Blair Arch was completely packed with 100 or more students standing shoulder to shoulder. I ended up in the middle of the crowd, barely able to move.
All of a sudden, someone put their hand into my back pocket and begin to fondle me. My first reaction was shock. I couldn’t believe it was happening. My next reaction was fear. I imagined I would have to get into a fight with the molester, and I was scared of getting hurt. So my response was muted. I turned my head to look around and try to see who was doing this to me. But nobody made eye contact. And I couldn’t be sure which of several people around me was the perpetrator.
I could have forced my way out of the crowd, but that would have disrupted the event and drawn attention to something that was already humiliating. So I basically did nothing. I froze. The person felt my rear end for probably several minutes. I think the ordeal ended when a song concluded and the crowd shifted.
It pains me to remember my passive reaction to being violated. That pain surged again the other day, when I told my two teenagers about the incident for the first time. Both couldn’t believe I let the molestation go on for so long.
“All you had to do was yank their hand away, Dad,” my daughter said.
I also think I detected a note of disappointment in their voices. That their father hadn’t been more assertive when attacked. Or maybe it was just my own feeling of shame, of failure to be a strong man, a future father they could be proud of.
But that “strong man” ideal is at the heart of the problem when it comes to sexual misconduct and assault.
As others have noted, the 1980s culture I grew up in lionized sexual conquest and excused sexual assault — notably in the Sixteen Candles movie scene in which the boy hero effectively gives permission to another young man to rape his drunk girlfriend. Male sexual impulses and the competition among boys “to score” were treated as biological and social imperatives, while the will of females was of secondary importance if considered at all.
I keep thinking of the “Pepe Le Pew” cartoons I watched growing up. In them, a skunk named Pepe pursues a white-and-black cat he finds irresistible. The cat is repulsed by his smell and tries to flee. But Pepe persists and keeps taking her into his arms, kissing her against her will. Talk about toxic masculinity.
Tellingly, the female cat never speaks. And her desperate, futile attempts to escape are framed as funny. It’s the kind of funny, the kind of laughter, that Blasey Ford said has been permanently seared into her hippocampus.
Those cartoons and that Sixteen Candles scene don’t seem funny anymore. Thank God for brave women speaking up in the #MeToo movement. For calling B.S. on the boys-will-be-boys definition of masculinity.
Because ultimately the kind of masculinity that is ok with some female collateral damage in the quest for sexual satisfaction and social status isn’t just immoral. Its lazy. It’s saying we men can’t control ourselves and our urges. Of course we can.
What’s more, a meathead version of masculinity, that denies our empathetic side in favor of a might-makes-right ethos, messes up plenty of men. It helps explain why I’ve been ashamed of the time I was molested. I wish I had defended myself when someone put their hand on me against my will. But part of why I was so passive is that I grew up in a pecking order in which I wasn’t an “alpha” male comfortable with combat. I “lost” my only real fist fight in 6th grade and learned to find my self-worth and status in other arenas.
What if being a man for me growing up had been less about dominant expressions of strength and more about defending everyone’s dignity? What if vulnerability and emotional honesty weren’t seen as weak but as powerful — something more and more men are realizing today? Maybe then I would have had the confidence to yank that hand from my back pocket. Maybe then I would have respected the girl at the party enough to stop when I should have.
Today, Donald Trump is claiming it’s a scary time to be male in America. It’s an overblown fear, given how rare false accusations of sexual assault are. It also covers up the real problem — a definition of masculinity that hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. A version of masculinity that is outdated, mean-spirited and prone to abuse. I hope the current conversation sparked by Kavanaugh and #MeToo helps us move to a new model for how men are supposed to be.
Because sexual misconduct is a shame all around.