It has been almost 27 years since Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, was called to testify during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation. We all heard her talk about how Thomas repeatedly asked her out, even after she had turned him down, how Thomas had put a put pubic hair on a can of Coke, how he claimed he has a penis the size of a porn star named Long Dong Silver, how he described pornographic materials he had seen and described large breasts and penis sizes. And we all saw how she was treated by the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary panel – like a “woman scorned,” seeking fame at the expense of an “innocent” man and not to be believed or respected.
On October 11, 1991, I was 16 and a Junior in High School. We watched the hearings in our history class. I continued to follow the hearings at home and read about them in the newspapers. And in my immature state, I wondered what the big deal was. There were a lot of jokes on Saturday Night Live and on talk shows that made light of Anita Hill’s accusations. I laughed with them. Chris Rock had a joke that “if it wasn’t for sexual harassment, none of us would be here.” And in laughing, I trivialized what Thomas had done. The accepted argument was that people should be judged by who they became, not by what they once were. And what the whole episode taught me, an impressionable 16-year-old white kid, was that if you made a bad decision or treated a woman poorly during your younger years, it was excusable. There would be plenty of time to make up for it. To become a man.
That was the immature me, but I grew up. And as I matured, I believed that the rest of America was going through an emotional growth spurt as well. I thought the “boys will be boys” attitude was heading towards extinction as we said goodbye to our Neanderthal ways and evolved into a better world where men and women treated one another equally and where standards of decency and respect were imposed at all ages.
How wrong I was. 27 years later, we find ourselves in a similar moment. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has detailed how Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh pinned her down at a high school party when she was 15 and he was 17, groped her, covered her mouth with his hand so she couldn’t scream, and tried to take her clothes off. White men everywhere (and some women) went on Kavanaugh defense mode and argued that even if he had done it, he shouldn’t be accountable for his actions in high school. Leaders who are representing all of America defended a man accused, instead of listening to and believing the victim. Have you heard of victim blaming? It’s a real thing and is happening now just like it did in 1991. Like it always has.
And here we are talking about the Supreme Court – the highest symbol of justice in our nation and the means by which we ensure it. Those who don the black robes should be – must be – held to the highest standards. If Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court Justice, it will say what putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court said. And quite frankly, what putting Bill Clinton and Donald Trump in office said. It will say that there are different standards of justice for men and women. That boys can get away with treating girls different, because, in the end, it will all be just fine. Boys can move on and advance and girls should get over and forget about it. It says to our sons they have the freedom to do what they want to whomever they want, and it says to our daughters that their bodies are not their own and when someone violates them, well, it’s their fault. That it must be something they caused and isn’t a big deal. And it’s best to keep it quiet.
One doesn’t move on from sexual harassment. It’s always there. It is an undercurrent for the rest of your life. It’s in nightmares and new relationships. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for a woman who has been harassed by a man to see him held up as a beacon of justice in the highest court in the land. (And to all those dads who brag about what they would do to their daughter’s boyfriend or date if he mistreats her, how would you feel if he did and then that guy became a federal judge and was nominated to the Supreme Court? Would you still support his nomination?)
Does requiring that our elected officials and judges have a lifetime commitment to equal treatment of women create an impossible standard? Aren’t all men, at some level, guilty of sexual harassment in one way or another? No. That suggests that men are incapable of controlling themselves or viewing women as equals. And I know men, better men than me, who have embodied that standard throughout their lives.
Let’s be clear, I am no saint and I am haunted by my past. And although I’m one of the “good” guys now, or, “Woke” as some say, I also know that my prior attitudes and actions likely disqualify me from public office. People who knew me in high school or college might question my credibility or values and I accept responsibility for that. But I do know men who qualify. And I know a lot more women who are above qualified.
To Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and every other woman who has come forward to address their accusers or who are silent because of fear or hurt or just the strong desire to have their private traumas remain private, I am sorry. I am sorry for laughing at jokes about such a serious matter. I’m sorry that in the past I looked at sexual harassment passively or as a source of humor. I’m sorry that I was silent when I saw things that I knew to be wrong. I’m sorry that I did not speak out or step up in your defense. The best I can do now as a father is to make sure my boys are not like the men who hurt you and that my girls know that they are equal and worthy of dignity and respect. And as a family, we will stand with all women and people who are vulnerable and oppressed and fight for equal rights.