Brett Kavanaugh and the breathless effort to protect a rich, white man from repercussions

Kavanaugh was in high school when he allegedly sexually assaulted a teenage girl — but that doesn't mean he's blameless.

Children who played on teams coached by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, along with his wife Ashley Kavanaugh and daughters (2nd R to L) Lisa and Margaret Kavanaugh, attend the third day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill September 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Children who played on teams coached by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, along with his wife Ashley Kavanaugh and daughters (2nd R to L) Lisa and Margaret Kavanaugh, attend the third day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill September 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The woman who accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party when they were both teenagers went public over the weekend, speaking out for the first time in a Washington Post interview. Kavanaugh said in a statement Monday that the allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford “never happened,” while many conservatives, as well as members of President Donald Trump’s family, have shamelessly attempted to minimize or outright mock the assault.

The attitudes of those defending Kavanaugh tend to fall in one of two categories. The first argument is that what Kavanaugh allegedly did is simply common behavior for a teenage boy, similar to smoking weed and getting drunk. Despite the fact that rape culture has been normalized in our society and mass media, nothing about Kavanaugh’s alleged actions were standard.

The second is that no matter the severity, what one did as a teenager doesn’t “count,” as we consider U.S. Supreme Court nominees with lifetime appointments. This argument that “boyhood” does not deserve scrutiny only seems to apply to white boys and men of high socioeconomic status. Kavanaugh should be judged for who he is today, influential political voices, mostly conservatives, argue, not what he supposedly did in high school. But most of the people making this argument don’t relate it to our justice system’s treatment of young people of color, who often face jail time for minor offenses, or to young undocumented people, who face deportation for being brought to the country as children. 


Let’s revisit some of the details of the assault that media outlets covered in the past few days. In the 1980s, Blasey Ford was a 15-year-old student at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, while 17-year-old Kavanaugh attended nearby Georgetown Prep. At a gathering at a house in Montgomery County, Blasey Ford said, Kavanaugh and a boy moved her into a room and Kavanaugh held her down and covered her mouth as he sexually assaulted her, attempting to remove her clothes. As the Post reported:

While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”

She escaped after Kavanaugh’s friend, Mark Judge, tried to get involved, and all of them fell down, during which time she was able to escape. Blasey Ford locked herself in the bathroom for a while before fleeing the house. She kept the incident to herself until 2012, when she relayed the story in couples’ therapy. She considered coming forward sooner, but ultimately decided not to, until her story became known through an article by The Intercept, which reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) refused to share a letter from one of her constituents with fellow senators. Blasey Ford ultimately decided to come forward about the event that, she said, caused her to struggle academically and in relationships, and caused her symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The harm Blasey Ford experienced is the result of Kavanaugh’s choices. But as much as conservatives claim to celebrate personal responsibility when cutting funding to social safety net services or health care, they have chosen not to apply that principle in this case. Conservative “Never Trumpers,” Trump administration officials, and influential conservative political figures, have come together to argue that the allegations simply aren’t important, because Kavanaugh was too young for his bad choices to count:

A lawyer close to the White House told Politico that the administration won’t withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination. The lawyer said to the outlet, “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” — an egregious statement that suggests most teenage boys have attempted rape at some point in their lives.


The idea that any man could be taken down by a sexual assault allegation and that it’s too risky to hold men accountable for things they did when they were youngor middle-agedor elderly, is a problem that goes beyond political party or ideology, however. Indeed, in a political environment in which a man who was accused of sexual assault by several women became president, rape apologists of all stripes may feel emboldened.

Max Boot, who is a former Republican, but considers himself to be a “principled conservative,” called the incident “ambiguous.”

Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, who worked as an adviser to the Pentagon and focuses on human rights, said she was “uncomfortable” saying his character as a teen informs his character now. Brooks chalked it up to “teenage idiocy.”

But even if one accepts that argument, Kavanaugh’s character as a 53 year-old man wouldn’t be salvageable. He’s denied that the incident ever happened and has stood by while those who support his nomination mock and smear Blasey Ford. If one were to argue that we should consider that a person can harm another, acknowledge the harm, do the best they can to work on themselves and try to mitigate that harm, Kavanaugh has done none of these things. This, despite the fact that the consequences to Kavanaugh would be far from severe. Losing the opportunity to become a Supreme Court Justice for life appears to be an outrage only to those who feel a man of Kavanaugh’s background is entitled to the position. Low-income people face far worse consequences for stealing groceries so that they can feed their families.

As Kavanaugh’s alleged actions are swiftly dismissed as a childhood mistake, Black teenagers are often denied the ability to be children, as they are often seen as less innocent than their white peers. Time and time again, young people of color are locked up for non-violent actions, called status offenses, that wouldn’t result in an adult’s detainment. These offenses include “incorrigibility” or disobedience (an arguably natural quality in a teenager), as well as curfew violation, truancy, and running away from home.

Conservatives appear unwilling to fight the injustices that primarily put kids of color in jail or killed, because this concern is only reserved for white boys and men whose futures are considered too precious to meddle with. As journalists, activists, and academics have pointed out, there is, for example, a major discrepancy between the way the president has rushed to defend his nominee and his insistence that the Central Park Five — a group of innocent teenage boys of color who were wrongfully accused of assault, rape, and sexual abuse and spent years in prison — receive the death penalty.

Donald Trump, Jr. mocked Blasey Ford on Instagram over the weekend by posting an image of a piece of paper with a child’s handwriting that read, “Hi Cindy … will you be my girlfreind,” along with a caption that said “this is a copy” of the sexual assault letter Feinstein was withholding. Trump Jr. not only manages to downplay the alleged actions of a 17-year-old by ascribing young age and innocence to them with a child’s handwriting and spelling skills, but also suggests that assaulting a girl is a natural part of the romantic and sexual ritual, and that everyone else is blowing it out of proportion.

After esteemed publications such as the New York Review of Books and New York Magazines recently published interviews and essays from men accused of sexual violence and their enablers, and many of those men feel confident enough to step back into the public spotlight without showing remorse, it is no surprise that so many have rushed to defend Kavanaugh in such creative ways. The collective effort to protect another influential white man from repercussions would be laughable in its predictability if it didn’t have such severe consequences for our human rights.