“For me and my friends, his past is our now.”
This was the sentiment expressed by a South Dakota teenager to the New York Times about the high school actions of Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and a man who has been accused by mutliple women of sexual assault.
Maycee Wieczorek is 17, the same age that Kavanaugh was when Christine Blasey Ford says he pinned her down and attempted to rape her. For her, hearing adults not take Ford’s account seriously “felt odd” and disheartening.
And understandably so. Wieczorek and her teenage friends may be currently navigating similar scenarios to the ones that Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who says Kavanaugh shoved his penis in her face in college, have described: Being aggressively accosted by a classmate who wants to have sex with you, when you don’t. Being drunk at a party as classmates try to objectify you. Having a group of male friends give you a sexually suggestive nickname that they use when you’re not around.
For teenagers in the prime of Generation Z, these situations aren’t just hypotheticals, and they certainly aren’t matters of the past. The assaults and sexual misconduct as told by Ford, Ramirez, and now Julie Swetnick, not to mention the countless other survivors sharing their experiences on social media, are litmus tests for today’s teenagers, allowing them to understand how the adults, authority figures, and peers in their lives would react if they found themselves in similar situations and needed someone to turn to.
That’s how it’s always been, right? Youth molding themselves to the models of society, learning how to behave and what they can get away with, based on what is normalized to them? Often learning that it’s better for them to stay quiet than to speak up?
But in the context of this weeks-long news cycle on Kavanaugh’s past behavior and Ford and Ramirez’s oft-attacked recollections, nearly a year after the rapid launch of the Me Too movement, the youth aren’t just picking up hints about how they must perform gender, or how they must assert themselves as boys and guard themselves as girls. They’re watching the consequences for their own (past or future) assaults and behaviors play out in real time, learning what they will and won’t be scrutinized for, as evidenced by Kavanaugh’s presumed and maintained innocence by the Republicans, the president included, who continue to push for his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.
“Boys will learn that what you do in high school won’t affect your future at all, so go do the damage you need to do now,” Wieczorek told the Times.
This is what a teenager from South Dakota is taking away from all of this. pic.twitter.com/uRGydKLv3Z— Lily Adams (@adamslily) September 25, 2018
But there is hope. Women like Ford, Ramirez, and Swetnick have put their actual lives on the line to call out alleged predators like Kavanaugh, whose future job could be making laws that govern women and their bodies. Survivors are not only sharing and reliving their traumas in hashtags, they’re yelling at Congress and calling out the violent behavior of powerful men, despite having everything to lose. They have the understanding that other women, other survivors have their backs. Staying quiet is getting very, very hard.
This is also what Generation Z is witnessing, and they seem to have no problem leading the charge. Last week, an 18-year-old from Michigan named Ashley Donahue spoke out on Twitter about Panic at the Disco guitarist Kenneth Harris, saying that Harris, who is in his 30s, asked her for selfies in exchange for a guitar pick when she was 16, just two years prior.
Following her admission on Twitter, several other people reached out to Ashley, sharing their own experiences of Harris asking them for selfies and provocative photos when they were minors. Ashley tweeted screenshots of these messages, blocking out the users’ names and photos. Panic at the Disco has since fired Harris for “a personal matter.”
i really do love panic! at the disco but uhhh.. kenneth harris needs to be called out, so here's a thread about my experience with him— ashley misses big time rush (@donasnooze) September 20, 2018
In Florida, a woman named Nia came forward around the same time on Twitter saying that Garrett Clark Borns, the 26-year-old behind Børns, had emotionally manipulated her into having sex several times, starting when she was 19, which she said was three years ago. Days later, a second woman named Lyss came forward saying that Borns had groomed her from ages 16 to 18, manipulating her into sending her photos. She said he got her drunk when she was 18 and took advantage of her, though she characterized the sex as consensual, and that she had finally broken off contact with him when she was 19.
Several other people have since come forward with their accounts, and have had them anonymously published on a Twitter account dedicated to “exposing” Borns. Borns has denied the accusations, stating that they are “false” but that all relationships were “legal and consensual.”
Donahue told the Daily Dot that what happened with Harris had always been her darkest secret, and though she had brazenly come forward on social media, she had always been too afraid that she wouldn’t be believed, or would be blamed for what happened, or that people would make excuses for Harris’ behavior.
Unfortunately, across Twitter, those worst fears came to life: Like Ford and other women who have dared to speak out, Donahue says she’s been bombarded with harassing messages and death threats. But she wants musicians such as Harris to know that their celebrity status doesn’t give them the right to manipulate the young people who idolize them.
“Keeping this whole situation to myself for so long made me feel incredibly guilty for not coming out about it sooner. Never once did it cross my mind that he could be doing this to other people, but then I get all these DMs from girls sharing similar stories, and it breaks my heart,” Donahue said. “I’ve been seeing way too many musicians abusing their power to prey on young girls, and that’s what really gave me the push I needed to speak out.”
It’s almost surprising for these young women to be so forthcoming in their experiences, especially so recently after they’ve happened, in comparison to the decades that Ford, Ramirez, and Swetnick have been forced to hold onto their traumas. But it’s evidence, albeit anecdotal, that societal pressure to bury trauma and abuse is perhaps changing for the better. Young survivors are being emboldened to say something and speak out against the people who hurt them, regardless of the amount of power and celebrity that this person may, or are positioned to, possess.
And yet, it is still the survivor who is left to forge a more confident, righteous path to justice. Amid this real-time examination of Kavanaugh’s behavior as a high schooler, women detailing their abuse can’t be the only way other 17-year-olds learn about consent, agency, communication, and respect. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states require sex education. And while many abstinence-only programs are being rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance” programs, these programs still don’t cover topics that teens need, such as “healthy relationships, communication, and consent.” Youth speaking truth to power may feel emboldened, but without a more cohesive educational effort, teens continue to be set up for the high school culture described by Swetnick, where women are taken advantage of, then made to feel shame over it. It is a culture that once again puts the onus on survivors to stop predators, and then only after it’s too late.
Who knows what will happen to Kavanaugh, if he fall from power, perhaps face charges like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Or if he will become one of the most powerful men in the county, like our president, who has been accused by 19 women of sexual misconduct. But despite the ways in which we may be moving toward a future that listens to survivors, the lessons Gen Z are learning must extend beyond hypervisible abusers under public scrutiny. And it certainly shouldn’t be left for young sufferers of trauma to fix.