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We’re Still Living in the Boys’ Culture of Kavanaugh’s Youth

My recent college experience suggests that young men still behave as they did in the early 1980s.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

“What’s your body count?” 

This question might make a certain sense on the battlefield—certainly more sense than asking, “How many people have you slaughtered?” When one’s job is to kill, then it’s better to think of the enemy as unhuman, as a mere body whose destruction has no moral consequence. Detached from their humanity, bodies become trophies—conquests of war over which soldiers compete to demonstrate their worth.

I’ve been asked about my “body count” countless times, and I’ve never served in combat. Instead, this question was posed in a place that couldn’t be further from the battlefield: an elite university. During my years as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, men compared each other’s “body count”—the number of women they’d slept with. Here, too, bodies were just trophies.

The confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of committing sexual assault while at Georgetown Prep School and Yale, has put a spotlight on the toxic boys’ culture that existed at prep schools and fraternities during the 1980s. Kavanaugh’s page in his twelfth-grade yearbook includes a reference to “Renate Alumnius,” which, according to two of his classmates, was a reference to “the football players’ unsubstantiated boasting about their conquests” of a female classmate,” The New York Times reported. His friend Mark Judge’s page, meanwhile, said, “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”

“People claiming that they had sex with other people was not terribly unusual, and it was not terribly believable,” William Fishburne, a manager for the football team told the Times. “Not just Brett Kavanaugh and his particular group, but all the classmates in general. People would claim things they hadn’t done to sort of seem bigger than they were, older than they were.”

Yale was equally toxic. “The year Kavanaugh joined DKE,” HuffPost reported, referring to Delta Kappa Epsilon, “two of his fraternity brothers marched through campus holding a flag made of women’s underwear. A fraternity member claimed the underwear was obtained ‘consensually,’ but a female classmate of Kavanaugh’s said DKE brothers would ransack underwear from women’s rooms.”

Some writers describe the 1980s as a different era in this regard. Referring to Judge’s yearbook quote, The Atlantic’s Caitlan Flanagan wrote, “If you want to get a sense of the tenor of a boys’ school in the mid-1980s, look no further than the fact that no one—no Jesuit priest or yearbook adviser or teacher—thought this was an inappropriate thing to have printed in a book published by the school. This may be an example of the freedom of expression that made the pre-P.C. days so halcyon, but it is definitely an example of the fact that in a boys’ school in the ’80s, sexual frustration was combined with a casual misogyny—if not of deed then of word—that the authorities were in no way concerned about.” Later, she wrote that “the 1980s were a time of essentially unsupervised, extreme, and often violent behavior” at fraternities.

In short: That was then, this is now. But the notion that this culture no longer persists is grossly mistaken. That was then, but it is also now.

At Notre Dame, where I graduated this year, the term “body count” was just one entry in an entire lexicon of violent slang about female conquest. “Did you guys bang?”  “Damn that guy slays.” “Did you smash last night?” “I’m gonna rail her so hard.” “I would hit that?” Bang. Smash. Slay. Rail. Hit. These terms, synonymous with bodily harm, were embedded in a campus culture that viewed women as an enemy to be conquered and conflated male self-worth with sexual achievement. A night was considered successful only if you “smashed.” A boy is considered a man only if he “slays” on a regular basis.

That was just the least of it, too. Male students played a rhetorical game called “how many beers,” about how intoxicated they would have to be to consider having sex with a particular woman. They created “family trees” to trace how many of them had slept with certain women. They would declare a “fives weekend,” in which they set out to sleep with girls whom they would rank a 5 out of 10 in attractiveness.

These words and practices have real, harmful consequences for women. Recent studies have found that male exposure to objectifying depictions of women predicted greater support of violence against women, that higher levels of sexual objectification were significant predictors of male aggression toward females, and that even within the context of romantic relationships, increased sexual objectification of a female partner is related to higher incidents of sexual pressure and coercion.

I’m drawing from my own experience in college, but the examples above are by no means extreme. Notre Dame is unique in some ways: Its Catholic culture, same-sex dorms, and discouragement of sexual activity surely influenced the boys war-like mentality about sex, but the school also outlaws fraternities and is known for its lacking “party scene.” However, at the colleges I’ve visited, the outcome was no different—and sometimes worse. In a brief visit during my senior year to the University of Illinois, I witnessed the aftermath of sexual violence.

Walking home on a Saturday morning, I saw a girl limping down a dormitory hallway, looking disheveled and close to tears. When I asked her if she was OK, her eyes darted away in embarrassment and she pushed past me without uttering a word. Down the hall, from where she’d come, I could hear cheering and hands slapping hands. It turned out that several boys had competed to see who could make their respective hookups “feel it” most the next day. It was clear who had won. Seeing my horrified reaction, my friends told me not to worry—that this sort of thing happens all the time.

It’s conceivable that some things have gotten better since the 1980s. Certainly, rape is less openly celebrated in teen movies. Sexual violence appears to be in decline. But it’s far from clear that this progress is as substantial as some seem to believe it is. Moreover, by treating the past as a time capsule, we risk obscuring the serious problems in the present that #MeToo has brought to light. Once men admit that sexual violence against women is still ingrained in society, then we are forced to admit that the accusations against Kavanaugh are neither rare nor dated—that men are doing such things to girls and women today.

But reprimanding men like Kavanaugh, and applauding women like Ford, isn’t enough. The fight to protect women’s bodies is not for women alone; men too must take responsibility. If we truly care about reducing sexual violence, we must recognize that we are all culpable for the toxic male culture that breeds it. We must confront this culture rather than contribute to it. That means not objectifying women—not treating them as trophies, to be conquered through violence. It means not dismissing admissions of sexual assault as “locker room talk.” And it means, yes, a presumption that women are telling the truth—not waving away allegations with cries of “due process” and “burden of proof.”

The elevation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has been all about the political calculus of largely old men—not that all of them agree. As Democratic Senator Chris Coons said to Christine Blasey Ford during last week’s hearing, “I’ve been really troubled by the excuse offered by too many that this was a high school incident and boys will be boys. To me, that’s just far too low a standard for the conduct of men and boys in our country.” But my college experience suggests that a group of young men, given senatorial power, also would have backed Kavanaugh on those very grounds: Boys will be boys. So if we’re to have any chance of changing what happens inside the U.S. Capitol, we must first change what happens outside of it. Otherwise, we had better be prepared to witness hearings like Kavanaugh’s for decades to come.