What Boys Are Made Of

by Katharine Coldiron
Originally Published: 
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Every night this week I’ve had nightmares and insomnia. I’ve been sleeping badly for 25 years, but constant nightmares are new. Last night, I dreamed that I was in a small town and some men catcalled me, so I lured them into a basement with promises of sex. My co-conspirators were waiting to chain them, chop them up, and sell their meat and bones to local butchers. I didn’t exactly want this to happen, but I didn’t exactly not want it to.

I’ve been thinking about moments in my teen years that I thought I put aside long ago. I remember a family dinner with a… friend?—hard to say — who was a bit older than me and had gone off to college at a party school. He got drunker and drunker as the evening went on, and when we were the only ones who hadn’t gone to bed, he took hold of me and tried to kiss me. His chest as I tried to push him away felt like tensile steel. He swayed, too drunk to insist; I was very, very lucky. His belligerence boded ill.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I went to a dance with the same guy’s brother, and he, stone-cold sober, made out with me very aggressively before we got in the car to go. He reached up my dress and into my body without permission.

The minute I read the words “Georgetown Prep” associated with Kavanaugh’s education I knew exactly what he was like in high school and college, the kinds of things he’d probably done.

The lucky things about this scenario: He was a good kisser (so I was turned on instead of grossed out) and we were casual about the whole thing (we’d nominally decided to go as friends; the making out was spur-of-the-moment and not repeated during the rest of the evening, and yeah, it’s a little strange that he decided to reach up my dress during this casual encounter, but that is the culture, my dears, that is what it means to be a young man or a young woman in this goddamn culture). I was older than him, we were on budgeted time, and there was no way he would have thrown away the whole dance experience for… whatever else he might have wanted.

I remember very well that his hand under my dress amused me more than it shocked me, and that it didn’t hurt me at all. He was an operator. It wasn’t an easy dress to get up under. That was funny to me. But if the mood had been different — if it’d been the end of the dance instead of the beginning — if I’d resisted him instead of taking it easy….

The first experience was scary enough that I hung on to it for a lot longer, but I’d filed both of these incidents away before this week started. Hadn’t forgotten them, just didn’t live with them in front of my eyes every day.

This passage appears in an unpublished essay I wrote earlier this year:

Arrogance is very ugly to me. It makes my skin crawl. I trace this repulsion to my high school, which was rich and white and full of boys in button-down shirts and tasseled loafers. They had skills I never learned (athletic camaraderie, how to do a keg stand), and they walked around as if the world owed them everything and as if the world’s pay-up was inevitable. I despised them then, before I had the words or the life experience to understand why.

Now, I remain suspicious of environments that allow boys like that to flourish. I wonder existentially at the purpose of prestigious schools, of prestige generally. As a quality, I find prestige rarely measures character, or at least not as accurately as it measures endowment.

During high school, I wasn’t popular enough to attend parties where people drank and fucked, but I knew they existed. I know one woman who was raped twice at those parties. She kept going back to them because she was popular and that’s what you do: Go to parties, get drunk, go to parties, get drunk. Another woman I know got so intoxicated that she fell through a glass coffee table and permanently scarred her face.

That’s the culture of wealthy white private schools. It may be part of the culture of public high schools, too, but I can’t speak to those. I remembered, from clicking around the internet that when the terrible consequences of these parties become apparent to adults in the community, they try to tamp down on the party behavior (drinking, lack of supervision) without supporting victims, without specifically punishing the people who hurt others, and without talking realistically or rationally about how to let kids rebel and have fun without causing permanent damage. It’s like Footloose: Stop the dancing and you stop the sinning.

This is idiotic. Curfews will not push teenage boys off the path of depersonalizing their female classmates. Cutting off access to alcohol will not transform teenagers’ frontal lobes to prioritize consequences. The solution is not nannying; it’s communication, reasonable limits, and for fuck’s sake, a genuine accounting of American teenage years, instead of the memory fuzz of good times and no harm done.

Clearly, “no harm done” is a hilarious falsehood.

I’m sharing this not because I am troubled by what newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh supposedly did to women in high school and college. Because I’m not troubled. I’m completely unsurprised. The minute I read the words “Georgetown Prep” associated with Kavanaugh’s education I knew exactly what he was like in high school and college, the kinds of things he’d probably done. Maybe that’s a kind of profiling, a kind of prejudice. I’m not sorry.

What troubles me about this is not the party culture of private schools, not the serene conscience that results from a life of privilege (no matter in what direction the moral center is tuned), not even the things that happen to women at parties and other places populated with arrogant white men. Those things do not trouble me because I know them, have known them, swim in them like water.

What troubles me is the shock demonstrated by decent people on all ideological sides of this issue. The nationwide surprise that teen boys are capable of this, capable of grinning through life after dehumanizing a long string of women and girls, capable of rising almost to the highest legal office in the land. How can you not know that this is what teenage boys do? How can you not remember what life was like in high school? How can you think that no harm was done?

And if it sounds like I’m making the “boys will be boys” argument, I am not. That kind of flippancy is fertilizer for a robust, fruitful rape culture. The argument is closer to “many boys act like animals, and those who think otherwise are either radically ignorant or complicit, and that is an atrocity.” It must stop. There must be a way to raise boys — even privileged, sporty, Greek-participating, charismatic boys — who will not rape.

And the solution isn’t to take away frats or alcohol or driving privileges. It goes deeper than that. I don’t know what it is, but we better find it, before all the women who have been victimized set the fucking world on fire.

In the meantime, weeks like these will bring back sour memories and sprout nightmares in women who were as lucky as I was, or who were not. Suffering is the price of progress. I’m looking forward to a time when the suffering is a little better distributed among the various demographics.

This story was originally published on Medium.

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