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What Kavanaugh is accused of isn’t “horseplay”

The problem with the “boys will be boys” defense of the Supreme Court nominee.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Christine Blasey Ford says Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when both were in high school, pinning her to a bed and putting his hand over her mouth.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford told the Washington Post of the Supreme Court nominee. She said the experience led her to struggle with academic and social problems, as well as symptoms of anxiety and PTSD that lasted years. But according to one of Kavanaugh’s supporters, the behavior Ford describes might’ve been just “horseplay.”

Carrie Severino, a lawyer for the Judicial Crisis Network, a group backing Kavanaugh, said on CNN on Tuesday that Ford’s allegations could describe “a whole range of conduct, from boorishness to rough horseplay to actual attempted rape.”

When pressed by CNN’s Kate Bolduan about whether Ford was really describing “horseplay,” Severino said, “the behavior she describes could describe a whole range of things.”

Severino isn’t alone. Since the allegations against Kavanaugh — which he has denied “categorically and unequivocally” — first came to light last week, several people have implied that the actions described constitute little more than normal adolescent male behavior.

But dismissing sexual assault as “horseplay” is both inaccurate and irresponsible. Experts in adolescent behavior say that what Kavanaugh is accused of is a far cry from normal teenage wrestling. “It’s not playing; it’s assault,” Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University who has studied boys for decades, told Vox.

What’s more, describing assault as no more than typical behavior for young men has the effect of normalizing it, experts say, perpetuating a culture in which boys and men are not held accountable for sexual violence. “When we say this is just what boys do, it’s a way of not having boys be held responsible for their behavior,” Rosalind Wiseman, author of Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, told Vox.

Meanwhile, dismissing violence as play contributes to a climate in which survivors are discouraged from coming forward and their experiences are discounted or disbelieved.

“We can all be accused of something”

Kavanaugh issued a strong denial of the allegations against him last week. This week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said that he had spoken with Kavanaugh, who said “he didn’t do that, and he wasn’t at the party” in question, although Ford had not offered many specifics about the party. (A Hatch spokesperson later said Kavanaugh had actually told the senator “he was not at a party like the one she describes.”)

But these denials haven’t stopped some of Kavanaugh’s supporters from arguing that even if he did what Ford alleges, it wouldn’t be so bad. Fox News columnist Stephen Miller tweeted, “it was drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.”

“Man, I hope all the people who are making this case had spotless lives at 17, because I sure as hell didn’t,” tweeted Federalist contributor Tom Nichols.

And a lawyer close to the White House, speaking anonymously to Politico, said, “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.”

“The salient question about Ford’s allegations became, in some quarters, not whether they are true, but rather whether they count as allegations at all,” Megan Garber wrote at the Atlantic. “The cruelties she describes — the alleged acts of dehumanization that left her traumatized, she says, as a 15-year-old and, still, as an adult — might be ‘terrible,’ yes, but they are also … simply part of the natural order of things. Boys, figuring out how to be men.”

Sexual assault is not normal “play” for teenage boys

But experts who study boys say the behavior Ford describes is by no means a normal part of figuring out how to be a man.

Wiseman takes issue with the notion that pinning down a girl against her will could be described as horseplay. First of all, she says, horseplay typically takes place between two boys: “I have never heard an adolescent boy describe interactions where a girl is there as horseplay.” And, she said, “horseplay means there is equality and consent between two people.”

For Way, the key distinction between what Ford describes and normal teenage playing is that Ford says Kavanaugh covered her mouth. Boys might wrestle playfully with girls, but “if he has to cover her mouth,” Way says, “he knows it’s violence.”

It’s also important to distinguish between what is normal for teenage boys and what is common, Wiseman said. To call something normal is to say it’s “within the boundaries of what we usually think of as acceptable social behavior,” she explained. Behavior like what Ford describes may, sadly, be relatively common — anecdotally, Wiseman has heard from many men that “there are a lot of boys in high school who do things like that” — but that doesn’t make it normal, or right.

Way was especially disturbed by the lawyer’s comment to Politico that “every man” should be worried. “The way that normalizes that all boys push girls into a room and cover their mouths and try to take their clothes off and rape them,” she said — “you are saying that that is just normal human behavior.”

Dismissing sexual assault as “horseplay” is dangerous for survivors and society

Normalizing sexual assault can have devastating effects for survivors and for society at large. Treating sexual violence as normal teenage behavior, Wiseman said, sends survivors the message that if they decide to come forward, “they would not be believed, and that they would be further dismissed, demeaned, ridiculed, ostracized, alienated, that the social cost of coming forward would be on them, never on the perpetrators.”

For Way, the comments minimizing Ford’s allegations are part of a larger problem with the way American culture sees boys and men. In her interviews with boys, she said she’s found time and time again that they feel pressure to be aggressive or violent in order to live up to cultural expectations of masculinity. Boys “do not naturally rape, assault, push girls down, cover their mouths so they can’t breathe, or try to take their clothes off,” she said.

“If we’re going to call that natural male behavior,” she added, “then what we’re really doing is taking what we’ve created culturally and making it ‘natural.’”

The result is bad for boys — stereotypes that they are violent and don’t care about feelings or friendships can frustrate their attempts to connect with others and leave them prone to loneliness and mental health problems, Way said. And it’s bad for all of us, because it leads to an environment in which “all violence is basically accepted and begins to be tolerated.”

Stopping sexual violence will require going beyond Brett Kavanaugh or any other person accused of misconduct and “getting to the root of the issue,” Way said: “a culture that encourages that kind of behavior and then normalizes it.”

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