Should teens be held accountable for their behavior thirty years later? When Kavanaugh was asked a variation of this same question during the Fox interview, he responded with, “People should be judged by their whole lives.” Now that’s something for us to chew on, for this statement points to the argument he tried—and failed—to make: that he has been behaving with integrity his whole life. As many of us know, such a standard of excellence is nearly impossible for any of us to maintain, particularly when we look back at our younger selves. And while many of us have done things we regret doing as teens, we cannot change our pasts. But our present-day adult self has the power to assert a new and more nuanced narrative—one that permits itself to be held up to a new light and changing values. Our adult self can express remorse for past behavior instead of trying to cover it up. Our adult self can rise up and attempt to take responsibility now. When men like Brett Kavanaugh grow up and find themselves under the glare of public scrutiny, they can change the conversation by not hiding behind adamant denials or rehearsed soundbites. Instead, they can be honest, nuanced, humble, and real.
As a Sexual Literacy educator, I recognize that teens do and say regrettable things. For instance, in a recent co-ed class I taught on consent, a few of the boys in my class told me it was normal for boys to solicit and circulate sexually explicit images of their female classmates. When asked whether they believed this behavior was ethical, they seemed genuinely confounded, as though they’d never before considered such actions through the lens of ethics. One of them even said, “I never thought sexual stuff and ethics went together.”
So when I think about a young Kavanaugh—or of any of the boys I’ve taught or currently teach—I understand why the justice system differentiates between minors and adults. I understand why teens aren’t permitted to drive until age 16 or why they’re not allowed to rent cars until age 21. Their minds are still under construction; their prefrontal lobes aren’t fully developed. They’re often impulsive, thoughtless, and foolish. They can make poor decisions, and when alcohol is thrown into the mix, it’s likely that their decision-making skills become that much poorer. But does this all mean that the young Brett Kavanaugh—or other young people—have earned free passes to sexually harass or assault others? Absolutely not.
But it does mean that parents and educators need to do a far better job of teaching kids about consent, gender literacy, ethical decision-making, sexual harassment, healthy relationships, and the dangers of combining alcohol with sexual activity. It means that we need to help kids understand that “ethics and values” do apply to the sexual arena—and that we cannot afford to wait until teens are in high school to begin having these conversations. Based on the stories that are emerging in the wake of #MeToo, it would seem that the sexual arena is a place where our values are being—and need to be—asserted. And, many years after the fact, how we hold and talk about our sexual experiences may be the biggest test of our values yet.