Politics

Toxic Bro Culture Finally Found a News Peg

It never should have needed one.

Brett Kavanaugh seated at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the weeks since Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school, a cohesive picture of young Kavanaugh has emerged. High school and college classmates have portrayed him as a frequently belligerent drunk, and in his own senior yearbook entry, he pegged himself as a heavy drinker and someone who jokes about sharing a woman sexually among friends.

On Wednesday, Julie Swetnick came forward with disturbing new allegations that implicate both Kavanaugh and the bro culture in which he was apparently embedded. In a sworn declaration, Swetnick alleged that she “witnessed efforts by [Kavanaugh’s close friend] Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.” Once, Swetnick said, she was the victim of a multiperpetrator sexual assault at one of the parties Judge and Kavanaugh attended, although she didn’t allege that they were among the perpetrators.

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Swetnick’s declaration reinforces a statement Judge’s ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Rasor made to the New Yorker in a piece published Sunday: According to Rasor, Judge once admitted to taking turns having sex with a drunk woman along with several other high school boys, though he said it was all consensual.

Judge’s lawyer told the New Yorker that he “categorically denies” Rasor’s account. Many women who attended elite private D.C.-area high schools in the 1980s have, however, confirmed Kavanaugh’s accusers’ descriptions of the drunken, misogynistic atmosphere during that period. What started as a single story about a single incident at a single party—Ford at around age 15, having her clothes and body pawed at and her mouth smothered by a drunk Kavanaugh, with Judge egging him on—has turned into an indictment of the entire bro party culture in which they spent their youth.

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Alexandra Lescaze wrote in Slate this week that, as a high schooler at Washington’s National Cathedral School in the ’80s, she witnessed what students called “lineups”: a drunk girl in a room with several boys lined up outside, waiting to have sex with her. “Though there weren’t lineups of this nature at every party, they happened often enough that we had a term,” Lescaze wrote. “We traveled in groups and knew never to leave a friend alone at a party, but there was so much drinking that we sometimes lost track of each other. It could be difficult to know where your friends were and—if they were in a room with a boy—what was going on in there.”

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A late-’80s alumna of Holton-Arms, Ford’s high school, told Vanity Fair that a Georgetown Prep alumnus raped her on what was supposed to be a double date with a friend during her junior year. “He held his hand over my mouth and forced himself on me. I really tried to stop it, but women are so deeply conditioned to go along, and the traumatic response is to freeze,” she said. She told the friend what happened on their drive home. “I told her that he raped me, and she kept telling me that I was lucky, because he was so cute. … Why would I tell anyone after that reaction? What was anyone going to do?”

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This fleshing out of Kavanaugh’s teenage milieu makes the assault and abuse allegations against him more believable than if they’d come out in a vacuum. But the accounts that have emerged in the past few weeks have done more than just firm up these specific claims. They’ve spurred a broad public reckoning with the kinds of behaviors that flourish at alcohol-centered high school and college parties.

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Even as the #MeToo movement has spurred conversations about sexual assault and power dynamics, it’s been difficult to find a fresh approach to the discourse around teens, alcohol, and consent, which has been hashed to death and soured by bad journalism like the University of Virginia gang rape story in Rolling Stone. But the recent Kavanaugh allegations have proved capable of driving a blanket reassessment of bro party culture, especially among the now-adult women who experienced it. Their power stems from the organic, random way they bubbled up. This wasn’t a school system or wealthy community that made the news because of a high school gang rape. Kavanaugh may as well have been plucked from a hat filled with the names of every man who grew up rich, white, and athletic in America—and he just happened to have allegedly attended several parties in which high school girls were assaulted. The stories we’re hearing about D.C. prep schools in the 1980s lead one to wonder: What might we have found if we’d plucked any number of other names from that hat?

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The fact that this examination of party culture is happening in tandem with Supreme Court confirmation hearings could help observers comprehend what these stories are actually about: the intersection of white, upper-class male impunity and contempt for young women that infects communities across the country. The “lineups” that Lescaze and Swetnick have described are not gruesome aberrations specific to the tony suburbs of D.C. in the ’80s; they’re the predictable end product of a stew of entitlement, misogyny, one-upmanship masculinity, glamorized alcoholism, and a fetishization of virginity that shames women for having sex, thus discouraging them from identifying and reporting sexual assault. These sorts of assaults are at the far end of a continuum with the other abuses mentioned in Lescaze’s article and Swetnick’s affidavit—unwanted kisses, groping, trying to get girls drunker than they intended—and the sort of “Renate Alumni” boasting Kavanaugh and his friends encoded in their yearbook.

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For what feels like the first time, there is a glaring, urgent reason to discuss a toxic culture that is as familiar to young women today as it was to the students of Georgetown Prep, Holton-Arms, and the National Cathedral School 35 years ago. It’s prompting women all over the country, including hundreds of women from Ford’s school, to remember, relive, and possibly recategorize violations they endured as high school and college students. “We didn’t call it rape,” Lescaze wrote of the “lineups” she saw in the ’80s. With the entire country’s eyes on a man who allegedly partook in ritualized, normalized sexual abuse as a teenager, those “lineups” are finally getting seen for what they truly are. The indignities that preceded and surrounded them are overdue for a wholesale recall, too.

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