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What’s wrong with the “just a teen” Kavanaugh defense, according to a psychologist

Here’s what we know about teen perpetrators and victims of sexual assault.

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The recent sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have raised many questions, but by far one of the most discussed is the relevance of age. As described by Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh was 17 and she was 15 at the time of the alleged incident. Now both are in their 50s. (Kavanaugh denies the alleged assault occurred.)

Do events that happened during adolescence still matter to a person well into adulthood? How should we think about sexual assault from a person’s teenage years decades later? Political commentators have been weighing in on this question in relation to the allegations against Kavanaugh. As articulated by opinion columnist Jonathan Zimmerman in USA Today, “Kavanaugh was a teenager at the time. Of course he was different then; he was a third of the age he is now. And teens do stupid, dangerous and destructive things.”

As a violence researcher, journal editor, and psychologist, I am one of the many scientists who have been studying these kinds of questions for decades. Misunderstandings and assumptions about patterns of behavior in adolescence have been flourishing in the discourse around Kavanaugh’s alleged actions. It’s worth looking at what we know from decades of investigating these topics.

Teen victims of assault can experience trauma for a lifetime

On the victimization side, the answer is a clear “yes.” It is well-established that childhood and young adult victims of sexual assault experience lifelong impacts. The impact includes not only higher risk of psychological problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, and suicidality, but also greater likelihood of physical health problems such as obesity, and social consequences such as school dropout. The evidence now indicates that every victimization experience — especially those that happen in childhood — adds to the total burden or “dose” of adversity, and you can see the health impacts of childhood abuse well into adulthood.

The reasons for this long-term impact are still being explored, but most evidence points to the physiological effects of toxic stress. Toxic stress can lead to the excessive release of stress hormones and other physical responses that can cause permanent damage to many bodily systems, including victims’ metabolism, heart health, and immune systems.

For teen perpetrators, the science is still developing. But here’s what we know.

For perpetrators, the question of what matters 30 years later is more complex, and the science is still developing. It has been said that there is no evidence that Kavanaugh has engaged in any form of perpetration in recent years, which would not be an unusual pattern. Late adolescence through the 20s are the peak risk period for sexual perpetration, and, for that matter, most other crime.

Although young people can pack a lot of offending into that developmental stage and terrorize many victims, most (but not all) people reduce their offending as they mature, especially into their 40s and beyond. Unfortunately, it is usually the worst offenders who also persist in perpetration the longest, which is how you can end up with someone like Larry Nassar, 55, the physician who has been convicted of assaulting several young gymnasts, with some estimates putting the true number of his victims over 250 across more than 20 years.

However, even when sexual offending is limited to a relatively brief period of adolescence or even a single incident, that doesn’t mean those offenses are completely in the past. Not just anyone commits sexual assault. It takes a special kind of person to look at another human being and think, “I bet I could overpower her”— much less actually try to do just that. It is unfair to most men to suggest that these behaviors are just part of the experience of masculinity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sex offenders often have antisocial personality traits, impulse control problems, hostility toward women, callous attitudes about sex, and other problematic characteristics. They often engage in binge drinking or other substance abuse — and no, not all adolescents binge-drink. Further, although some sexual perpetrators are criminal “specialists,” meaning that they don’t typically commit crimes other than sexual assault (particularly common among pedophiles), many sexual perpetrators are criminal “generalists” who commit other types of offenses. These problems don’t just go away, even if their most extreme offending improves. Many of these personality characteristics are very resistant to most forms of psychotherapy.

As a psychologist, I believe that people can change. Otherwise, what would be the point of therapy? But change takes work. If someone denies what happened or tries to cover it up, then it is more likely that they are going to carry these other problems forward.

Telling the truth is the first step toward healing for both perpetrator and victim. Truth-telling is the foundation of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, the Truth and Reconciliation movements that began in South Africa after apartheid ended, and, of course, virtually every form of psychotherapy ever invented. The truth is the absolute minimum that is owed to victims.

In my years as an advocate, I have seen perpetrators of sexual violence genuinely put their past offenses behind them. These people don’t just admit that what they did was wrong or say that they are sorry; they do the work necessary to understand that their victim’s story is just as important as theirs. They learn that the rest of us are not just “extras” in the story of their lives or objects to be manipulated or discarded for their own pleasure, but that we are fully equal humans who have the same rights to self-determination and the same emotional depths as they do. They don’t sacrifice others’ well-being or reputations so they never experience the consequences of their actions.

And even when they do successfully do this, the mark of the sexual assault does not go away, not fully, not ever. But it does become a less important moment in the lives of both perpetrator and victim.

Sherry Hamby is a research professor of psychology at the University of the South and editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence.

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