Twenty years ago, I wrote a column called “Dear Diary” for VICE back when it was still a physical magazine you picked up at a shop that sold bongs or Vans. The column featured an excerpt from my real teen diaries from the 80s followed by an update peppered with the kind of political incorrectness that defined VICE back then. As a consequence, my old diaries are filled with sticky notes and sentences highlighted as possible column fodder like this one from March 1984, written when I was sixteen, about a double date my friend Linda and I went on with a guy she liked named Dean and his friend Todd.
Dean and Todd asked us out on a date. We went and they spent alot (sic) of money on us. So I slept with Todd only because he spent lots of money on us. I felt like a slut right then and there and I cried.
Later in the same entry I wrote:
I wish I could take a pill to make me hate Jeff (a recent ex) and like Todd. But it’s the other way around. I hate Todd + love Jeff. Todd makes me puke. I hate him and myself even more. I got in a lot of shit for coming home at 6:00 in the morning.
What I failed to mention in that entry was that while Linda was upstairs in Dean’s room having (consensual) sex, Todd was busy date-raping me on the living room floor. To be clear, I would not have called it rape then; things just got a little crazy. And though I hadn’t thought about that night in a long time, the recent allegations of sexual assault and impropriety against Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, when he was in high school and college, brought it all back.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford claims when she was fifteen, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed at a house party and tried to remove her clothes while covering her screaming mouth. A friend of his jumped on them and she escaped. Deborah Ramirez, a classmate at Yale, followed with allegations that Kavanaugh shoved his penis in her face during a drunken sex game, though she admits she might have some details wrong, and according to the New Yorker, “she blamed herself for drinking too much.” (Hashtag me too.) Yesterday, a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, with the most heinous of claims: that Kavanaugh was among a group of boys known for spiking girls’ drinks and gang raping them, herself a victim. Then, later in the day, NBC reported yet another assault allegation.
My own bad date started out in typical 80s fashion: lying to our parents, Todd’s Camaro fetching us at a designated spot, a lot of hairspray, and pre-drinking in the car. We had fake IDs, so they took us to a club in Detroit. After that we went back to Dean’s house, a mansion on the lake, located two towns over from ours. Dean’s parents were away, as it seemed all parents were back then.
We continued to drink and I remember the large sunken living room, how the windows overlooked the lake. I remember the stone fireplace, the brown paneling, the dim lights. Linda and Dean went upstairs and Todd threw the couch cushions onto the shag, pulling me down to the floor. I remember being sort of okay with the kissing, but then he got grabby. I would remove one of his hands, and another would land somewhere tricky. He was huge, too, well over six feet, one eighty, to my five five, one twenty. I did say no, but it was a whiny no, small and unconvincing. I tried to get up off the floor but he exhausted my attempts, eventually grinding me into a suffocating submission. I had no choice but to give in. The crying afterwards mortified me as much as the sex had—I was already aware that this would not go well for me if he told anyone, which, of course, he did.
Messages about sex are always inextricably linked with the popular culture you consume at a formative age. As a child of the 70s my own lessons began the moment Sandy stubbed out her cigarette in Grease, fully transformed into the kind of woman Danny Zuko preferred. Dressed in black leather pants and a tight black top, he couldn’t keep his hands off Sandy, and he didn’t. He got chills. They multiplied. He was losing control. I know what I took away from that movie, but imagine what boys learned.
A few years later came the epic love story of Luke and Laura on General Hospital. Their romance began with a literal rape on the floor of a local disco, Luke’s actions in my memory that of a man so overcome with desire he had to have Laura. Re-watching the clip on YouTube is alarming. Not only is Luke violent, actually striking Laura at one point, Laura’s lack of consent is unambiguous. A crime was committed, one that left a woman distraught, running and crying into the night. Yet I rooted for them to be together, for Laura to forgive Luke, who the soap depicted as agonizing over his actions, drawing so much sympathy from viewers that by the time the couple married in 1980, Luke was a full-blown heartthrob. Thirty million viewers tuned in to their wedding, including starry-eyed, thirteen-year-old me, and both my brothers. See? A rapist can have a happy ending, if he rapes the kind of woman who can forgive him for raping her.
Then in the 80s came John Hughes—Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. Finally, stories teens could relate to. The most pivotal film for me was Pretty in Pink. Molly Ringwald’s character Andie, from the wrong side of the tracks, falls for the affluent Blaine, rejecting the sweet effeminate Ducky who really loves her. She eventually proves disposable to Blaine, who dumps her before prom. Andie confronts him, accusing him of being ashamed of her poverty, her rage utterly transfixing. There she is calling him out for the dirtbag that he is, and so of course she ends up with… Blaine. Sorry Ducky, and all the sensitive men who saw this movie and concluded that nice guys finish last.
Then there’s Sixteen Candles. Beyond its straight-up racism, the movie also boasts a sickening scene when Jake, the heartthrob, the hero, “gifts” his passed out girlfriend to the nerd, as if she were a sex doll and not a vulnerable teenage girl. I’m sure I laughed and laughed back then, right along with whichever guy took me to see the movie. Ringwald herself condemned the act in a recent article in the New Yorker, calling it a “glaring blind spot” in an otherwise sensitive teenage oeuvre. But these were the stories we were all steeped in, boys and girls. Rapists could be romantic heroes; nice guys are losers; drunk girls are party favors. Hahaha.
Thinking back on my own rape—why didn’t I scream or call the police, if the attack was, to paraphrase the President of the United States, as bad as I remember? Because that would have required me to see what Todd had done as criminal. Because popular culture taught young men that no means maybe, that drunk girls are fair game, that she wants it. Plus I would’ve had to admit my stupidity. Like Deborah Ramirez, I was embarrassed; I knew I shouldn’t have gone back to Dean’s. I knew better than to get that drunk around those boys. I was taught this by a mother who also knew better, whose own cultural touchstones were movies like Rebecca and Splendor in the Grass, where sluts went crazy or got themselves (justifiably) murdered, where chastity paid off if you wanted any kind of decent life. And Todd had the keys; he was my ride home. Even if I‘d had any money, there were no cabs in the county.
What’s most dismaying is that nearly every woman I know has similar stories. Let me repeat, nearly every woman I know has experienced some kind of sexual impropriety or assault in their lifetime. But the only reckoning I’m seeing from men are comments from the GOP and their female operatives that minimize the accusations, calling them “horseplay” or an example of “boys will be boys,” one lawyer close to the White House reportedly saying that if these allegations disqualify Kavanaugh then “every man certainly should be worried.” Judging from recent attempts at contrition from the likes of Jian Ghomeshi, Louis C.K., and John Hockenberry, abusive men still don’t comprehend the wreckage they’ve left in their wake.
There have been some heartening stories. Writer Deborah Copaken was inspired to reach out to the man who she said raped her in college. He immediately apologized. “Suddenly, thirty years of pain and grief fell out of me,” she writes. Atlantic contributing writer Caitlin Flanagan’s perpetrator did the same, while he was still in high school. Reading his words out loud on a recent episode of The Daily podcast, you could hear in Flanagan’s voice what his apology still meant to her all these years later.
The 80s were a sexually confusing time for all of us, but Brett Kavanaugh’s denials, his attempts to paint himself as a choirboy, have made it impossible for him to see his accusers—or himself—through any kind of compassionate lens. It’s too late for him to hold a nuanced discussion about what it was like to be young back then; this would bring him way too close to an admission. Barring some unforeseen event, like a Republican senator voting along ethical lines, Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court. But women won’t forget this come November and beyond.
By the time my own tears had dried that night with Todd, I had entirely reframed the incident in my head, and then in my diary. I wonder if he has thought much about that night. Maybe in his mind, he had sex with a drunk girl who went and made things weird by crying, and he still pats himself on the back for having the decency to try to comfort me until our friends we were done, and he could finally take me home.
Names have been changed.