The US Supreme Court candidate has been accused of attempted rape at a gathering, back when he was a teen. Some people think what went on was "normal". Others disagree
On Thursday, two people who were teenagers in the 1980s found themselves in a very adult setting: a hearing room in the US Senate, where elected officials will decide the country’s future by probing what happened in their distant past - at an alcohol-fuelled suburban house party, the descriptions of which have awakened memories for a generation.
The adolescents of the 80s are now adults reaching the highest rungs of power, and now people are questioning the forces that shaped them. The sex-crazed high jinks of the movie Porky’s and stoner truancy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High ruled at the box office even as the Moral Majority were still in charge politically. A vision of abstinence (“just say no”) collided with a culture of excess (Welcome to the Jungle).
Fraternities (university clubs joined by men, women join sororities) doubled their ranks even as the drinking age was raised state by state. Current US President Donald Trump was on the cover of Time, praiseing the values of “pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after”, while young women and men were just beginning to craft a language to describe their interactions in dim hallways and dark bedrooms, when one drink became two, or three or four.
Voices from the past
No single testimony can represent an era, just as no memory is 100 per cent reliable, but perhaps a chorus of voices can begin to cut through the fog. The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity. While many tell stories of college life, for consistency they have all been identified by high school graduation year, hometown and/or state state.
Barbara (high school class of 1983, southern California): Every Friday I remember leaving school, and the hallways would be filled with people talking about where the parties were. And you would go to different beach communities, to houses where you didn’t know anybody. Parents would go away for the weekend and leave the cupboards stocked with alcohol.
Charles Wilson (’88, Chevy Chase, Maryland): I wasn’t really into the party scene. People would talk about parties as the way to get girls. You’d get really drunk. You get girls. That’s what you’d do.
Elayne Burke (’86, Bristol, Rhode Island): I was a cheerleader for a little while. People would be like, “Oh we’re going to call practice early because someone got a bottle of wine.” This was during the week, Wednesday, at 3.30 in the afternoon.
Kate Schellenbach (’83, New York, later the drummer for the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson): The club culture in New York was fairly open, where they didn’t card anybody [check they were old enough to drink], so there were a lot of 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls going to these clubs. I knew tonnes of girls who were my age - 16, 17 - dating guys in their 30s and 40s, who were in bands, hooking up with these girls. There was never any discussion of age and age limit.
How they got around the age-limit
At the start of the decade, more than half the country had set the legal drinking age well below 21 - even as young as 18. In an effort to reduce drink-driving fatalities, many states began to raise it. The District of Columbia was one of the last, making it a destination for Maryland and Virginia teenagers for many years. In 1984, Congress passed a law making 21 the national standard; by 1988, the rule was in effect across the country.
Naomi Kritzer (’91, Madison, Wisconsin): There were a lot of things that were normal in the 80s that we would be shocked by now. The prevalence of smoking - there had been a smoking lounge for students until a year or two before I started high school.
Michelle Talbert (’87, Staten Island): We would go to the store to get our parents cigarettes. The alcohol would be marketed to us as sugary drinks.
Kristin McCracken (’86, Springfield, Virginia): I feel like every high school student in northern Virginia went to Dixie Liquors right across the bridge into Georgetown. Or people had fake IDs and went into the grocery store and bought beer. One friend’s mother bought us liquor for Beach Week.
Ken Flask (’83, Concord, California): There was a lot of drinking. [My ex-wife] was once trapped in a bathroom by a football player at a party and had to make up an excuse so she could escape. So those kind of things - they happened.
It was a decade of music-video sheen and romanticised teen angst, with pop culture icons and everyday role models conveying mixed messages about what it meant to be teetering on the edge of adulthood - and how young women should expect to be treated.
Edwin Andrew Campbell (’82, Indianapolis): Animal House became a documentary of sorts for frat boys like myself. How drunk could we get. How many girls can we get drunk, and maybe someone will get lucky [have sex]. Hell, my fraternity had a travelling trophy that was given to a brother each week for being the worst sleaze of the week. It was accepted as a good laugh and a way to embarrass the recipient.
Mark Goodman (one of the original MTV VJs, from 1981 to 1987): Because that was the first big era for video, all of a sudden stuff in lyrics that could sound a little naughty suddenly became a lot more in your face and blatant and possibly borderline.
Mark Weiss (rock photographer who chronicled rock bands Van Halen and Bon Jovi): I think the sexual revolution peaked in the 80s. The videos were just like movies. Without a rating system. It kind of pushed the limits a bit on screen.
Jay McInerney (author of the 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City): In the 1970s, we thought we were sexually liberated and adventurous with the combination of the pill and coming of age in a pre-Aids era. ... Of course, there’s sort of a myth about the hedonistic culture of the 80s. Unfortunately, these types of instances of sexual harassment, particularly in the context of frat parties, the presence of drugs and alcohol, have remained pretty constant whether the hair was puffier or shoulder pads were bigger.
Jennifer Abbots (’90, Danbury, Connecticut): In my subculture, being punk rock and weird, most of those girls were assumed to be kind of skanky or slutty because we wore fishnets and we wore ripped things, it was sort of assumed that you were having sex. ... I lost my virginity when I was 16. I did it with someone I wasn’t even dating just because I didn’t want to be a virgin anymore, just because I felt like I was the last living virgin. ... All the movies at the time were super-sexual. A giant subplot of Sixteen Candles is getting laid.
April Roberts (’83, Westchester County, New York): When I was in seventh grade, I went into the school late at night and the janitor tried to get me to give him [oral sex]. I did tell the principal, and the principal told me if I did tell anybody, it would ruin the guy’s life.
Lindsey Anderson (’83, Westchester County, New York): I had a doctor, when I was a senior in high school, who tried to molest me. I went home and told my mom - it’s not like she didn’t believe me. But she didn’t know what to do with that information.
Molly Ringwald, who became a star from three John Hughes' movies 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club: Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of the writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time.
Women to the fore
Women were making strides in the workforce and public life - Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court and Geraldine Ferraro the first on a major-party presidential ticket. For young women, everyday social life could remain treacherous to navigate. A 1985 study by public health professor Mary Koss found that one in four female college students reported having experienced rape or attempted rape.
Tracy Sefl (’89, Iowa): How I remember high school is that it was all very shadowy. If “reputation” was a label, it was worn by a girl. A guy was just a guy.
Jennifer Abbots: People told rape jokes. “Oh, you can’t rape the willing!” People would say that in high school.
Amy Cohen (’82, Philadelphia): Looking back now, we would call it “date” or “acquaintance rape”, but then we called it “pushed into it”, and this was before it was acceptable to report and share.
Michelle Talbert: I don’t think there was the same intellectual framing for talking about things. ... There was a time I was 14, hanging out ... It was three girls, three guys, whatever. . . . I ended up in a room with two guys. . . . When I told people what happened I was accused of lying, of saying I wanted it.
Barbara: I was 16, a girlfriend’s parents went out of town, and we all went there. . . . My girlfriend’s brother’s friends - they were all on the American football team. They were handsome. The popular guys. And, you know, I had only really drank beer, or Boone’s Farm wine, before that. And this popular guy gave me a bottle of vodka and told me to mix a drink, and I did.
Caroline McKeown (’87, small-town South Carolina): My friend was really, really drunk at this party. And the next day I had a conversation with her where she said, “We had sex, and I didn’t want to do it.” And I remember thinking, “Ugh, this is bad.” But that was it. And we never talked about it again.
Barbara: I was very drunk and I went out to the patio and sat on the chaise longue and passed out and came to later and he was orally assaulting me. Later in the evening, he took me to my friend’s car, very nicely, helped me to get in, gave me a kiss, and my friends were all like “What happened, what did you do?”
Caroline McKeown: It didn’t even occur to us to report it. . . . You know, we just didn’t have the language for what had happened.
Barbara: Everything was really foggy and you kind of rationalise it, you go, “maybe he likes me?” And it took days for it to really sink in, what happened, and he didn’t do it because he liked me, he did it because he knew I was passed out and he would get away with it.
April Roberts: Women didn’t think they could say anything. If you were a girl, you weren’t supposed to be having sex anyway.
Barbara: I never told anybody.
1986 - When no meant go
In 1986, a fraternity gang rape at San Diego State University drew national attention and began raising concerns about alcohol and sexual consent on college campuses. Meanwhile, a relatively new phrase - “date rape” - began to appear in news stories and ordinary conversations, raising awareness and giving many women a way to discuss experiences rarely spoken of.
Beth Mansfield (’84, Riverside, California): I was a little sister at a different fraternity [at San Diego State] and I had heard about [the rape] already before I went to school. . . . And when I went into [my women’s studies] class, I was mortified, and assuming lots of other people were mortified that this happened, just yards from where I used to go to parties. . . . When the professor brought it up, she said, “OK, this happened, what’s everybody thinking?” That’s when people were saying, “Gosh, she shouldn’t have been wearing a skirt.”
Charlie Hundley (’86, Woodbridge, Virginia): She was really, really drunk, and a [University of Virginia] frat brother was circling her. I lost track of her. The next day, he was bragging that he made her [give him oral sex]. I told him, “Dude, that’s wrong! You can’t do that!” He said, “What’s wrong with that? I was drunk, too.” I remember being so mad at him. It’s been eating away at me ever since.
Ken Flask: This whole narrative that somehow that’s what boys do, and that’s how it was - it wasn’t how a lot of guys behaved. It was the minority of young men who behaved that way, and most of us either felt uneasy to be around those people or knew what they were doing was wrong. It was common sense. It wasn’t like we needed some great enlightenment of the #MeToo movement to understand that that was wrong back then.
Tracy Sefl: What I saw in dorm hallways and dorm rooms were whispers and tearful conversations. One woman’s deep secret would soon reveal itself to be five women’s deep secrets.
Lindsey Anderson: This was before the whole “No Means No” thing. That came in the late 80s. [In 1991] every woman was like, “I believe Anita Hill”, because we’d all had stories like that.
Education, education, education
Towards the end of the decade, high schools and colleges began more education efforts regarding sex and alcohol. Many campuses put restrictions on drinking and fraternity life, and crackdowns by law enforcement made it harder - though not impossible - for teenagers to obtain alcohol.
Naomi Kritzer: In health class in ninth grade, we talked about the legal definition of assault in the state of Wisconsin. ... I remember people being really shocked by that at the time, that lack of affirmative consent would be sexual assault.
Peter Luce (’90, Barre, Vermont): Consent wasn’t something that came up until, I would say, my freshman year of college, in the early 90s. That’s when those conversations started happening.
Charles Wilson: It became a controversy then, kids wearing Spuds MacKenzie [a beer mascot] shirts to school. . . . You weren’t old enough to drink yet, so what are you doing promoting drinking?
Gagan Nirula (’89, Burtonsville, Maryland): From the perspective of somebody who went to a fairly multicultural public high school - back then you knew your social station wasn’t that you were going to get laid on a Friday night. It wasn’t a Pretty in Pink scenario where everyone got a room in a gigantic house and was doing stuff. A lot of kids would talk a big game, but you’d be lucky if you could get your hands on a Playboy. And most normal boys knew when something was wrong. You knew when you were not supposed to do something. ... “Boys will be boys” didn’t mean that. It was more like the kids on Stranger Things, with nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons.
Jay McInerney: The only thing that’s really changed is public awareness, a cultural context where now women are encouraged to break their silence.
Tracy Sefl: To this day I’ve saved a handwritten letter from one deeply traumatised woman with whom I spent an entire night speaking to quietly over the sexual assault victim’s hotline [where I volunteered]. She wrote to me - addressed to “the girl from the phone” - that I had helped her put words to what had happened. This was profoundly moving for me because, as a young adult, I was still learning how to put those words together for myself.