Commentary Violence

I’m a Doctor for Teenagers. Attempted Rape Is Not a Normal Part of Teen Behavior.

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram

The normalization of sexual assault perpetuates rape culture, and there are dangerous health consequences for victims, perpetrators, and for the public at large.

At age 15, Christine Blasey Ford was at a party where she says she was coerced and then confined to a bedroom by two drunk male teenagers, Brett Kavanaugh (then age 17) and Mark Judge. As Ford tells it, Kavanaugh pinned her to the bed, groping her and trying to remove her clothes while grinding his body on hers. When she screamed, Kavanaugh and Judge turned up the volume of the music in the room and Kavanaugh covered Ford’s mouth with his hand. At some point, Judge jumped on the two of them, and when the three fell over, Ford managed to escape.

Christine Blasey Ford’s story is one of sexual assault and attempted rape, not “boys being boys.”

As a pediatrician, a parent, and a person, I know that sexual assault is not a normal part of adolescent behavior. It is never normal behavior to violate another person’s body at any age under any circumstance. The normalization of sexual assault perpetuates rape culture and there are dangerous health consequences for victims, perpetrators, and for the public at large.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than one out of six teenage girls and one out of eight teenage boys experience unwanted sexual contact. Among female college students, 20 percent reported being sexually assaulted. Since sexual assault is often underreported, these statistics are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Only about half of high school students ever tell anyone about unwanted sexual contact and only 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported to authorities. My teenage patients who survive attacks are like many teens who hesitate to talk about what they endured. They feel ashamed. They have misplaced feelings of guilt for provoking the perpetrator. They are fearful of retaliation. For many adolescents, silence is a survival tactic after sexual assault.

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Since Ford’s allegations became public, pundits are reducing sexual violations to “boys being boys.” This callous disregard reinforces obstacles to truthful conversations—including by encouraging survivors’ silence. It also makes my work as a health-care provider extremely difficult. When patients are silenced after suffering sexual assault, they are less likely to seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and psychological trauma. Sexual assault is toxic stress with severe short-term and long-term consequences for physical and mental health.

Normalizing sexual violence also impacts perpetrators, albeit in very different ways. Perpetrators of sexual assault are mostly (but not only) male. Boys and young men growing up in the toxicity of a “boys will be boys” culture cannot be complete people. It is dangerously confining to build strength around the ability to impose oneself upon others. Such a narrow paradigm of power makes it near impossible to confront one’s own vulnerability, to demonstrate compassion effectively, or to hold yourself accountable. A 2017 study showed that boys in middle school begin to conform to toxic masculinity—and that for many of them, adopting those norms contributes to depression and poor academic performance.

The confines of “boys will be boys” says dating is meaningless if it does not lead to male sexual pleasure and release. Sex is nothing more than a transaction, a conquest, an entitlement. When sexual violations of others are just “youthful indiscretions,” boys and teens will not take responsibility or express remorse for their actions. Consent is assumed rather than asked for because “boys being boys” can’t have fun if they’re inconvenienced with considerations about a partner’s willingness. These boys and teens become men incapable of accountability, because systems of patriarchy never demand it.

These men implicitly and explicitly reinforce the rape culture that produced them. They are less likely to stop sexual harassment at their workplaces because they see inappropriate behavior as “fun and flirty.” As school administrators or judges or other authority figures, men raised with toxic masculinity hesitate to punish rapists for “youthful indiscretions.” But they are ruthless toward those rapists’ victims, unflinchingly questioning their integrity, motives, memories, and worth.

As a teenager, Brett Kavanaugh allegedly attempted to violate a woman’s body. He was never held responsible. He has expressed no remorse, because none was expected. Given that behavior and background, it is unsurprising that Kavanaugh tried so hard to stop a teenage immigrant from exercising autonomy over her own body when she wanted an abortion. It is unsurprising Kavanaugh saw nothing wrong with disabled patients undergoing medical procedures against their will. Kavanaugh (who allegedly attempted rape) was nominated by Trump (who appears to take pride in his sexual predatory behavior) to the Supreme Court in order to stop women from making health decisions for themselves. Republican senators and conservative political pundits are expressing doubt about the validity of Ford’s account of sexual assault because they want a conservative Supreme Court to invalidate sexual health policies and anti-discrimination policies for millions of women.

We don’t have to live like this. I refuse to be a helpless bystander. I ask my fellow Americans to join the dismantling of the “boys will be boys” culture. First, a time-sensitive request: Call your senators and demand they stop Brett Kavanaugh from joining the Supreme Court. Someone accused of sexual assault like Kavanaugh should not have any lifetime appointment in our judicial system. It sends a dangerous message to survivors like Ford: Your traumatic experiences mean nothing.

After you’ve made your calls to Congress, take a look around you. Dismantling rape culture requires much more than ending the careers of powerful men in the public eye. Everyone can contribute to better experiences of gender, equity, sex, power, and so much more. There is no prerequisite for action. You don’t have to be a pediatrician with teenage patients. You don’t need to be a parent to a daughter. Being a person is sufficient. This is our work in the #MeToo movement. Accountability is not just about taking famous wrong-doers to court. It’s about identifying and stopping toxic masculinity at our kitchen tables. Sexual assault is preventable, but only when we do the work to change from “boys will be boys” to “boys—and everyone else—will practice equity and accountability.”

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