Boys Will Be Boys: Brett Kavanaugh, Rape, & 1980s High School Culture
Rio Americano High School sits at the east end of American River Drive in a tony part of Sacramento. In the 1980s, Rio was the wealthiest public school in Sacramento, supported by a tax base generated from expansive California ranch houses and mutant versions of the English manor. Most of the kids who went to Rio were children of doctors, lawyers, and people high up in state politics. One of my friend’s father owned Sacramento’s biggest construction firm. Another acquaintance’s dad was dentist to governors and attorney generals.
Me? I was one of the school runts, a kid from the other side of the river, lower middle class and falling. My dad lived in a workingman’s apartment on the edge of the district. I claimed his address so that I could go to Rio and play in its 5-watt radio station, the only reason I stayed in school. My immediate circle of school friends was four punk rockers — O.C., Kitty, Mark O., and Percy. Deathryder served a year and was out. And there were some surfers, nerds, and new wavers with whom we punks were in friendly alliance.
Our enemies were the same enemies all awkward, introspective kids have — the jocks, the preppies, and the future frat boys — let’s say the Brett Kavanaughs and Mark Judges of the world, the chummy, respectable, entitled moral-slobs that we battled every day. Stand in front of your locker, back to the hallway and you were sure to feel a shove when these creeps walked by. If you were a girl, that shove would come with a grope. The girl would scream and the boys being boys would laugh ha ha. If you were a nerd alone in the locker room, these are the guys who would trap you down and make you smell their balls. If you were a girl, especially if you were drunk, pinned to the ground, hand over your mouth, you got to experience their “horseplay.”
O.C. and I learned early on that the way to keep the assholes from screwing with us was to screw with them. We did that by acting crazy, countering every taunt of “Devo punk rock faggot!” by screaming “I know where you live, I know where you sleep!” The one time I was jumped by jocks, I pulled hair, I bit, I clawed eyes, I punched their balls. I did not “fight fair” and they left me alone for the rest of my high school years. O.C. had much simpler solution, upon first threat, he swung his skateboard. Kitty also got into the crazy act, though her Soo Catwoman look already scared the shit out of the preps.
Because we were the school’s ultimate outsiders, we only had to deal with the school assholes when we were at school. We didn’t go to their parties or the five person drinking sessions held when mom and dad were away for the weekend. We didn’t go on their ski trips or European group vacations. We weren’t members of their country club. We escaped all the informal gatherings at which alleged predators like Kavanaugh and Judge looked for drunken prey. But, we knew all about them. Everybody did.
Being an outsider meant that I was confidant to girls who dealt with harassment and attacks. Come Monday, in science class, my lab partner “Rebecca Munson” would recite the weekend’s crimes. “Brad Harrington” had pushed “Sandy Roche” into a closet and groped her. “Barbara Hanson” got her top ripped off by “Phil Raymond” and “Peter Hughes” at a pool party. “John Klaus,” “Bart Jenson,” and “Spaulding Stills” pulled a train on “Cynthia Marlowe” while she was passed out. Rebecca’s recitation was hushed but a matter-of-fact, more resignation than condemnation, more reluctant acceptance than righteous anger. It was boys being boys.
None of this should surprise anyone who went to high school in the 1980s. Reagan’s America was an entitled jock running wild. Donald Trump rose to prominence in Reagan’s America. “Political correctness” didn’t exist — women and people of color who objected to being called “cunt” or “nigger” either weren’t heard or silenced. LGBT people? Ha! Gay men were being slaughtered by AIDS while Reagan hid mum. “Date rape” wasn’t rape. It was boys being boys. Discussion of date or acquaintance rape was restricted to feminist circles. It wasn’t until the late 80s that the first major study on date rape occurred and then a decade or so for date rape to be seen the majority of Americans as rape.
If you don’t trust me, check out the culture. Privileged young men and their debauchery are stars of the Brat Pack novels. The misogyny of comedians Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay doesn’t age particularly well. Try watching Porky’s, the 80s in the 50s film about teenagers trying to get laid. Or Risky Business, in which Tom Cruise plays a wealthy high school pimp. Or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, about teenagers trying to get laid. Or Weird Science, featuring two teenage boys who create a woman so that they can get laid. Or Revenge of the Nerds, where we learn that if geeks act like jocks and preps, they can get laid too. There’s The Last American Virgin, Can’t Buy Me Love, hell, the 80s is littered with teen comedies that tell young men that the surefire way to get laid is through trickery and deceit, or, failing all else, date rape. Think I am exaggerating? Let’s look at two popular films from the era.
First is John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. Like most of Creepy John’s films, Sixteen Candles is about teenage high school students trying to get laid. The set up is pretty typical: Cute and somewhat awkward girl wants the attention of wealthy, handsome, popular boy, but Popular Boy doesn’t acknowledge Cute Girl. Cute Girl reluctantly befriends obnoxious, Virgin Geek, who is also trying to score “out of his league” — Geek wants to get with Popular Boy’s beautiful, Popular Girlfriend. On the way to everyone getting what they desire, we bond characters by laughing at things like the racist humiliation of Asian exchange student “Long Duk Dong.” We finally get to the Big Party, where Popular Boy is disgusted by his girlfriend’s drunkenness. Popular Boy wants someone pure. He wants Cute Girl. To rid himself of soiled Popular Girl, he convinces packs her in to his Rolls Royce with Virgin Geek, telling her that Virgin Geek is him. Drunk, Popular Girl knows no better. Virgin Geek and Popular Girl wind up in a church parking lot. Virgin Geek fucks Popular Girl, who still thinks that she is with her boyfriend, Popular Boy. The next morning, Popular Girl wakes up next to Geek. She knows that something sexual has happened and that she was not fully conscious when it occurred. This is shared with the Geek. No one feels horror, shame, embarrassment, or regret. There are no apologies, for no one acknowledges that non-consensual sex has occurred. Rather, the date rape is played for laughs. It is a triumph for the young man, who now has won the affections of the woman he raped.
Number two offender is Animal House, a movie near and dear to former juvenile delinquents like me. Though Animal House — a spoof on frat society in the 1960s — was made in 1978 about, its influence on 1980s teen and screwball comedies is huge. Animal House is the first great melding of post-60s anti-authoritarianism, celebration for the outsider, and attacks on the elite with girl-crazy guy culture, teen rebellion, and midnight movie humor. The writing is sharp and funny and there’s brilliant performances. Bluto Blutarsky’s fight speech is one of the great comedy moments on film. Animal House also has a few problems, primarily the scene in which freshman college student Larry “Pinto” Kruger is fooling around with the mayor’s daughter, drunken teenage Clorette DePasto.
The scene occurs during the toga party. Larry and Clorette are making out. Larry tries to unhook Clorette’s bra but can’t figure out how to do it. Clorette sits up to unhook it herself. As the bra comes off, she passes out. Larry looks at Clorette laying topless and unconscious on the bed. A flash of smoke and the Devil is at Larry’s shoulder, “Fuck her. Fuck her brains out…You know she wants it.” With a shimmer and a pop, an effeminate angel appears on the opposite shoulder, “For shame, Lawrence, I’m surprised at you.” The Devil playing obnoxious, the angel as prim sissy engage in comedic debate. Larry shrugs and looks to the angel. The Devil, disgusted, insults Larry, “You homo!” and disappears in smoke.
Yes, Larry did the “right thing” by not raping Clorette. However, Larry’s “predicament” wasn’t “to rape or not to rape,” but, whether to be a “manly man” or a “sissy boy.” He chose “sissy boy,” so we get to laugh at the Devil calling Larry a “Homo.” Clorette’s vulnerability to rape is the set up for a lame fag joke. By playing date rape for a laugh, John Landis, Harold Ramis, and Doug Kenney present Clorette’s near rape as acceptable.
As bad as making a chucklefest of date rape is how the filmmakers frame Larry’s decision within the context of the film. The Devil and the angel are crude stereotypes of the disgustingly crude rebel and the annoyingly upright goody-goody. Divorced from the context of the whole film, the caricatures are no big deal. The Devil and the angel are equally obnoxious. If the tenor of the movie was that we all sit in a moral center where we constantly struggle between our impulses, gross Devil and prissy angel are just lazy illustrations of the pull of “good and evil.” However, there is no moral center in Animal House. The main message of the film is that having fun by embracing disgustingly crude rebellion is a high (low) calling! Animal House’s heroes are the law-breakers, the villains are law & order. Delta House is the Devil. Dean Wormer is an angry angel. Larry’s decision to do the “right thing” goes against Delta House’s ethos.
My critique is not that of a humorless, “politically correct” academic. Animal House was one of the most influential films of my youth. I’ve watched it at least fifty times, most recently a few months ago. It is on my comedy Mt. Rushmore with The Jerk, Airplane, and Caddyshack. As a teenager, I memorized John Belushi’s dialogue. Deathryder and I used its pranks as inspiration. Its anti-authoritarianism influenced my anti-authoritarianism. But, fact is, one of the film’s central gags frames the debate over whether or not an unconscious woman should be raped as normal male behavior.
When Animal House was released, there was a lot of fuss among preachers, teachers, and moralists about “the message it sent to young people.” Few could abide by its attacks on authorities. Much was made about the film’s “grossness” and “toilet humor.” People debated whether the Bluto’s “zit” joke was “appropriate” for youth. Prigs complained the film’s “Eat Me” float encouraged mindless rebellion and disrespect for the military. At my junior high, the vice principal called a school assembly specifically to tell us that food fights would not be tolerated at Kit Carson Middle School. Not one word was said about date rape.
Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I am not a moral relativist. There is right and there is wrong. There are also grey areas, but those tend to be clear, too. Murdering another person is wrong. Killing someone who is trying to kill you is most definitely a moral grey area, though I’d say it’s acceptable self-defense. I do not believe that when something occurred has any bearing on what is moral or not. Right or wrong is constant.
Slavery is wrong. It is wrong in the 2010s. It was wrong in the 1800s. It was wrong in the 1500s. It was wrong in the 1500 BCs. Though slavery is eternally wrong, for most of human history slavery was the norm. Normalcy is not morality. What is considered normal is not right or wrong. Normal is the “usual, typical, or expected.”
In the 1980s, date rape was normal. It was so normal that, as noted, what we now consider date rape wasn’t acknowledged as rape. Hell, it wasn’t acknowledged at all. It wasn’t talked about because no one, besides its victims and a handful of “extremists” thought it worthy of discussion. Date rape wasn’t rape. It was “boys being boys.” It was “horseplay.” It was “stealing home base.” It was “ripping one off.” It was “taking advantage.” It was “pulling a train.” It was anything but rape, and it was normal. It was not unusual. It was not atypical. And, among many drunk, entitled teenage boys, it was expected. Date rape was a male rite of passage. It was something to brag about in the locker room, as was “grabbing her by the pussy.”
Despite what liberals, conservatives, moralists, and good meaning people want you to believe, rape was normal male behavior. I gave you some examples in film of how rape was portrayed as just a thing guys do, just boys being boys. Let’s go way back in time: Ancient Greek myth celebrates rape in the story of Leda and the Swan. A controversial interpretation sure, but the Christian God’s impregnation of the Virgin Mary can be read as a celebrated act of rape.
Rock & roll? Pop? The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” is about raping a slave. Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” is about an older man coercing a teenage girl into sex. Devo’s “Triumph of the Will” is one of many “I know your ‘No” means “Yes”” songs. George Michael’s “Father Figure” is an ode to pedophiliac rape. You’d think that as rock & roll and pop “matured” artists would temper their enthusiasm for rape. You think wrong. Sublime’s “Date Rape” from 1992 explains that “if it wasn’t for date rape I’d never get laid.” Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” (1994) is either a song about “sexual frustration” or rape. And, over the last decade we’ve heard Chris Brown’s “Back to Sleep,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Jamie Foxx’s “Blame it on the Alcohol,” and Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” Dive into hip hop, metal, and punk, we’ll come up with hundreds more.
Hell, in high school I joined a punk band who had a song written from a rapist’s point of view. It wasn’t a celebration of rape. It was more like horror movie shock, but, still, nobody, me included, considered the song out of the ordinary. We didn’t have a phrase for all this back then, but we do today. It is called rape culture.
When boys and girls are raised thinking date rape is not rape but something so normal that it is celebrated in culture, normal boys like Brett Kavanaugh will (allegedly) rape. The victims will stay silent for years because deep in the victim’s subconscious is the idea that what happened is normal and, for many people, especially young people, what is normality and morality is confused. Subconsciously, what is perceived as normal is also seen as “right.” It takes a person years and much self-work to sort all of this out, especially when the sorting is done in a culture which tells us that a victim shouldn’t have dressed a certain way or was somehow responsible for their rape.
When someone says or implies that Kavanaugh and Judge’s alleged attack on Christine Blasey Ford was “boys being boys,” when placed in context, in the 1980s, “boys being boys” is true. Boys being boys attacked a girl. People who say, “That didn’t happen at my high school!” are blind to what was going on then or are liars now. Rape happened at your high school. Your peers were both the rapists and the victims.
Racism happened at your high school. The two Black girls, the Mexican boy, and the twelve Asian kids that you went to school with were harassed and attacked for their race and ethnicity. Homophobia happened at your high school. Name me one openly gay kid at school in the 1980s. Name me one closeted gay kid who did not live in terror of being found out. Misogyny? Ask the girls who slut-shamed for having sex or being raped. All this happened at your high school. And most of us were silent because we were confused, we didn’t know right and wrong from what was perceived as normal, we didn’t know how to act on what we knew was wrong, or we were too scared to go against our peers and act. All that happened. You know it. I know it. So, let’s drop the charade and admit that in the 1980s (and beyond) boys got away with date rape because it was considered normal.
Only by accepting that boys and girls were raised in a culture that did not acknowledge date rape as rape and accepted it as normal male behavior, can we change things. When we hear “boys will be boys,” we know exactly where this defense is coming from. When the boys will be boys club concocts incoherent theories deflecting blame and defending date rape we know what era normalcy is being based on. We are not just battling the present, but also the past. We aren’t just fighting for Blasey Ford’s right to speak up, but we are taking on a culture.
White people spent much of the past decade living under the lie that we lived in a “post-racial” world. We had a Black president, so everything was “ebony and ivory.” We were fools. Men and some women fuming that “This wasn’t my high school” and “NotAllMen” are, again, playing the fool. They are more concerned with self-appearance and parsing words than dealing with real world problem of rape and misogyny. We cannot be sucked into petty arguments over language, otherwise we are playing whack-a-mole with symptoms. We squash “boys will be boys” and now have to deal with “horseplay” or “rough sex” or whatever lame ass thing comes out in defense of Kavanaugh and others. Forget that, let’s get to the disease and root it out.
This essay originally appeared in the September 19th issue of Soriano’s Comment, №24. Free Subscriptions available here.