Kavanaugh allegations: Is what someone does at age 17 relevant?
President Donald Trump says “we'll have to make a decision” if Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual-assault accuser “makes a credible showing” before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Sept. 19)
"I do not understand why the loutish, drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge," The American Conservative editor Rod Dreher tweeted.
Fox News commentator Stephen Miller likened the allegations to "drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven."
Experts said an assault such as the one alleged by Christine Blasey Ford falls clearly outside the lines of behavior that can be written off as youthful indiscretion. Ford said Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, groped her, tried to remove her clothes and put his hand over her mouth. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.
Science tells us teens don't have full control of their impulses. That part of the brain is still developing into our 20s. So many teens make choices that aren't necessarily indicators of how they will behave as adults.
They drink too much. They drive too fast. They tease and play pranks that might cross the lines we draw for sexual harassment.
"They're going to do things in the kind of experimental fashion," said Christine Nicholson, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents. Sexual assault, however, "is a hard line."
Experts noted stark contrasts between the kinds of risky teen behavior that can be attributed to immaturity and actions that indicate a deeper flaw in a person's psyche.
Teenage antics are usually "calibrated not to hurt people," said Sherry Hamby, a psychology professor at the University of the South. If a boy covers the mouth of a girl to drown out her screams, "it's pretty clear that you know you don't have consent," she said.
Screaming would be "a sign that even a young child would notice that something is wrong," said Katie Edwards, a psychology professor and affiliate at the University of New Hampshire's Prevention Innovations Research Center, which combats sexual violence. Children begin to read emotions and learn right from wrong as early as age 2 or 3.
"Trying to make an argument that boys will be boys, that’s just reaffirming rape myths that we know are so pervasive in our culture," Edwards said. "I don’t think there’s any scientific evidence that this person wouldn’t know that what he was doing was harming another person."
Edwards compared assault to armed burglary: What if someone armed with a gun broke into your house, held you hostage and took away your most precious things while you screamed?
"Would you say, 'Boys will be boys?' " Edwards asked. "Probably not."
Unlike binge drinking and similar actions, sexual assault is a rare offense in teenage boys, a deviant behavior, Nicholson said.
"This is not a common thing for a boy to do," she said. "A boy can get drunk. A girl can get drunk. But to sexually assault someone while drunk is not a common affair."
Alcohol's ability to lower a person's inhibitions and perpetuate crime has been well-studied. Hamby said it shouldn't be considered an exculpatory factor for bad behavior, just as it wouldn't for any other crime committed while intoxicated.
She wouldn't consider age an excuse in such a case, saying it would set an abnormally low bar for teenage boys.
"It's absolutely within the capacity of (a 17-year-old) to refrain from sexually assaulting someone," Hamby said.
In discussing the Kavanaugh allegations, Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush, asked should “any of us be held liable today — when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts — and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school?”
Survivor advocates noted that assaults can follow victims decades later. Of college-age men who self-reported acts that would qualify as rape, 63% admitted to repeat rapes, according to a study in 2002 by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and the Brown University School of Medicine.
"People who offend throughout adulthood often began those behaviors in adolescence," said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "That does not mean that people who behave badly in their youth, in adolescence, all go on to do this across their lifetime."
Youths who commit sexual assault can be reformed by taking responsibility for their offense and working through it in therapy, experts said. But that takes admitting it first.
"There would be a big difference if this guy said, 'Look, I did this. It was so godawful, and I'm embarrassed and ashamed, and I have never done it again' and apologized profusely. If he was owning it," Yale psychiatry professor Joan Cook said.
Nicholson said sexual assault, even if perpetrated in elementary school, would invalidate someone from serving on the Supreme Court.
"You can't attempt to rape someone and go on to become a Supreme Court justice," she said. "People don't do that."