Stop asking if Brett Kavanaugh should be held accountable for his actions

Ali Gold | Staff Writer

When Christine Blasey Ford came forward Sept. 16, one question seemed to rise to national prominence along with her: Should people be held accountable for mistakes they made years ago? Specifically, should Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, now 53, be held accountable for a sexual assault he committed at age 17?

The pseudo-philosophical query immediately divided politicians, academics, writers, lawyers and the public. I watched as it spurred entire articles, a public Snapchat story and debates about the neurodevelopment of teenage boys, the ethics of political leaders and the ability to experience growth and change as a person.

However, centering this question in our dialogue about Kavanaugh is an unproductive and borderline detrimental way to frame discourse surrounding sexual assault.

This summer, I worked for 10 weeks on a long-form piece about Title IX reform and sexual assault at my internship. Throughout the many, many hours I spoke with survivors on our campus, it became abundantly clear to me that many of these perpetrators knew what they were doing. They knew they could get away with it. And so, they did it. Again. And again. And again.

Firstly, inherent in the question of “should Kavanaugh be held accountable for his actions 36 years ago?” is the underlying assumption that this was an isolated incident. Ruminating on the question only steeps this idea further, removing the possibility of the action being indicative of a larger pattern of behavior and values.

We know definitively that assailants rarely assault just once. In fact, in one study, the average rapist attempted or completed 5.8 rapes. So, we should assume that for every survivor who comes forward about an instance of sexual assault, there are perhaps more than four to five others who have not come forward.

In debating whether Kavanaugh’s actions can be overlooked because of their distance from the present, we write them off as merely a drunken and/or teenage mistake. We make the central question one of if we can grapple with a kid’s one-time err in judgement. We imply that someone must obviously have evolved and changed over such a long period of time. We treat sexual assault as a “mistake,” an offense excusable by youth or stupidity. We collapse a lifetime’s worth of damage into a single snapshot, a freeze-frame in ancient history. And we neglect that in the 36 years that elapsed between the alleged assault and today, at least one woman grappled with the life-altering consequences of sexual assault.

We should not have been surprised when Deborah Ramirez alleged that Kavanaugh had assaulted her during his college years, nor when Julie Swetnick shared that he tainted punch at 1980s house parties. When Ford came forward, it should have been expected that Kavanaugh’s behavior had affected more than one person.

This discourse can permeate how we think about assault on our campus, too. Acting as if the hardest question to answer here is if an assailant should be held responsible as an adult for mistakes made in youth removes responsibility from us and our peers to behave in ways we would be proud of as older adults. Plus, it detracts attention from more constructive conversations, such as how to curb sexual assault and how to best support and listen to survivors.

So, regardless of how we answer the question dominating the media, continuing to entertain it grants it legitimacy and space that it does not warrant. For the sake of survivors on our campus and beyond, let’s drop this discussion and focus on the issues that got us here.

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