This time last year, a familiar story was once again taking shape in the news: during a high school party, two boys forcibly pinned a girl down on a bed and sexually assaulted her. The circumstances surrounding the allegation were exceptional—Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account involved Brett Kavanaugh, then a nominee for and now a sitting Justice on the Supreme Court—but her account was depressingly familiar.
Blasey Ford’s story was stunningly similar to the one at the center of my documentary, Roll Red Roll, which investigates the cultural attitudes that shaped the 2012 Steubenville rape case, in which a high school girl was carried, unconscious, to a series of parties and sexually assaulted, while onlookers and witnesses laughed and spread the crime on social media.
“Indelible in the Hippocampus,” Dr. Blasey Ford explained during testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, “is the laughter.” That “uproarious laughter” between 17-year-old Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, which echoed in that bedroom, define her experience.
I know what that laughter sounds like. Videos leaked by the online “hacktivist” organization Anonymous from the night “Jane Doe” was sexually assaulted in Steubenville showed teen boys laughing hysterically about the assault, commenting on the photos, giggling, gasping for air. “She is so raped right now!” In social media posts from that night, those present and their compatriots revisited the punch line. “Whores are hilarious,” one boy tweeted.
In Kavanaugh’s case, the joke didn’t end at that house party. After Blasey Ford told her story, investigations into Kavanaugh’s past revealed a clique-wide attempt to slut-shame another classmate, Renata, in their yearbook. Less than two years later, while Kavanaugh was an undergraduate at Yale, he drummed up more laughs by reportedly pulling down his pants and thrusting his penis into Deborah Ramirez’s face—a claim corroborated recently during an FBI investigation. Classmate Max Stier even saw Kavanaugh pulling the same stunt at a different party.
This would make Brett Kavanaugh what we call a serial predator. That reinforces recent findings from a multi-campus study that found over 87 percent of alcohol-involved sexual assault was committed by serial perpetrators, and that men in fraternities and on sports teams were significantly more likely to be those perpetrators.
Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations and testimony raised urgent questions about the behavior of high school boys—about what we consider “normal,” and whether our culture cares about the harmful ramifications of those low standards. The answer was resounding: Some rapists fall—Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly among them—but others are canonized. Some predators are held accountable, but others sit on the highest court. In too many instances, fear for the fate of a perpetrator erases opportunities for accountability and justice for survivors.
During Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, community leaders called him “an outstanding man,” while the president called Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations a “con job.” “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life,” Senator Lindsey Graham shouted after Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony, speaking to Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. “You have got nothing to apologize for,” he told Kavanaugh minutes later. More recently, the president embodied the same defensive anger. “Brett Kavanaugh should start suing people for libel,” Donald Trump tweeted, “or the Justice Department should come to his rescue. The lies being told about him are unbelievable.”
For centuries, survivors have been warned that rape accusations “ruin a man’s life”—yet an alleged serial sexual assailant is the President and two men accused of sexual misconduct sit on the Supreme Court. When teens from Steubenville were sentenced, CNN’s Candy Crowley worried about the impact juvenile detention might have on “young men with such promising futures.” Folks in Steubenville also went on to defend the perpetrators, “These are good kids, they’re good football players.” Both of them served their sentences and went on to play college football. Only recently did men like Weinstein, Kelly and Epstein have to reckon with their abusive open secrets.
In the midst of this current moment—with #MeToo exploding in the background, and allegations against Kavanaugh once again making headlines—we must stop asking that question of alleged perpetrators and demand that survivors, and their own well-being, be at the center of these conversations.
“I’m the good girl,” Ramirez remembered of her run-in with Kavanaugh at Yale, “and now, in one evening, it was all ripped away.” Dr. Blasey Ford revealed during her testimony that she has two doors in her living room—because she still, decades later, can’t shake the fear of not knowing how to escape from that uproar. Dr. Blasey Ford was, in so many ways, the perfect victim: high-achieving and ambitious; intelligent and poised; white and middle-class. But that didn’t matter. Because to speak out as a survivor in rape culture is to rattle the institutions fueled by it.
Death threats last year forced Dr. Blasey Ford to leave even that house—because her testimony alone was seen as a threat to the Supreme Court, to white male dominance of politics and the justice system. Ramirez speaking out against Kavanaugh is undoubtedly a blow to Yale, which at the time was just beginning to expand the diversity of its campus population. Which groups will come after her? In Steubenville, Jane Doe, faced incredible backlash in the wake of viral videos and photos of her assault—as if, by the Attorney General’s Office of Ohio’s decision to hold her perpetrators accountable for rape, she were attacking the institution of high school football itself.
But the answer is not to steady the institutions. Instead, it’s to continue to shake them out. New calls for Brett Kavanaugh’s impeachment have been raised on Capitol Hill, where I’m screening Roll Red Roll today. That kind of action could be a powerful way for institutional accountability to also signal culture shift—for our nation’s leaders to demand that boys no longer be allowed to grow up into vicious men.
It’s a timely collision of conversations. Until we commit to having them, what happened in Steubenville, what happened in Bethesda, what happened at Yale—what is happening every day in every community—won’t stop happening.
The only way to stop the laugh track is to take violence as seriously as we should have in 1982 and in 2012. If we continue to let “boys be boys” and run wild, they’ll continue to grow up to commit serial acts of violence, sometimes in conjunction with wielding enormous power.