Keara McLaughlin says it’s not uncommon to hear boys make rape jokes in the hallways of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, where she is a senior. And when she goes online, she says she often sees misogynistic comments from her classmates.
“They have little to no regard for who hears that kind of thing, and that’s what is scary,” McLaughlin, 17, said.
Those jokes and comments were on McLaughlin’s mind over the past week, after Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her at a party when they were both in high school more than 30 years ago, an allegation he has denied.
Kavanaugh has since been accused of misconduct by Deborah Ramirez, who told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh pulled down his pants and exposed himself while they both attended Yale, an allegation Kavanaugh denied.
And on Wednesday, a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, claimed she witnessed Kavanaugh “spike” punch at parties in the early 1980s so intoxicated women could be raped and that Kavanaugh was present when she was gang raped. The allegation, which Kavanaugh denied as “ridiculous and from the twilight zone,” came in a sworn declaration shared by attorney Michael Avenatti.
McLaughlin on Wednesday called the conduct described in Swetnick’s allegation “disgusting.”
Earlier in the week, McLaughlin said the prospect of Kavanaugh’s confirmation was like “a slap in the face” to anyone who was ever sexually assaulted.
“You can come forward,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter because he is a rich white man who can do whatever he wants.”
Across the United States, more than half a dozen teenagers who spoke to NBC News, some before Swetnick’s statement was released, said they are closely following the way conservative commentators and politicians have defended Kavanaugh and attacked his accusers’ credibility. Some of those commentators have said that high school misbehavior should not play a role in Supreme Court confirmations, a view shared by at least one Republican congressman. On Thursday, Ford and Kavanaugh will testify about her accusation before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A lot has changed for American teenagers since the early 1980s, when Ford alleges that a drunken Kavanaugh tried to remove her clothes during a party when she was 15 and he was 17. Teens socialize not just at school and parties, in person, but also constantly and virtually, via Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and more. While many high schools still teach abstinence-only sex education, more and more each year are adding frank discussions of consent, assault and healthy relationships. The #MeToo movement has recently brought these issues into focus for many teens, who now have plenty of role models for speaking out about sexual misconduct.
But despite all of those changes, many of the issues teens face when it comes to sex and consent are the same, according to teens and the experts who work with and advocate for them. Assaults on teens are still significantly underreported, public health officials say, as some teens fear they will face a stigma for coming forward.
“Every generation assumes there’s some sort of progress and significant change from the generation that comes after them, but I don’t think that can always be the assumption,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which works to prevent sexual violence through research and shared resources.
“Dialogue around harassment, abuse and assault has opened up, and why consent is important to relationships is discussed like never before,” Palumbo said, “but we can’t assume that that’s led to change on a wide scale.”
WHAT’S CHANGED FOR TEENS — AND WHAT HASN’T
Teens in the U.S. today are having less sex than in the past, studies show. In 2017, 40 percent of high school students said they had had sex, down from 48 percent in 2007. Three decades ago, in 1988, 57 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 said they had had sex.
Teens who do have sex these days are more likely to use protection, perhaps because of more comprehensive sex education, though that’s still far from universal. Sex education is only mandated in 24 states and Washington, D.C., and only 13 states require the education to be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that aims to advance reproductive and sexual health rights in the U.S. In 2016, California became the first state to mandate that sex education for high school students include discussion of consent.
But sexual violence is still a significant issue for teenagers, experts say. A 2015 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 1 in 10 female students reported that they’d been forced to have sex at some point in their lives. It’s difficult to trace how levels of youth sex abuse and assault have evolved over time, because studies have used different definitions and methodologies. There have also been few studies specifically looking at teen-on-teen sexual violence outside of relationships. A commonly cited statistic that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 comes from a 1990 study; there were few similar studies in the 1980s, experts say.
And the number of teens who have faced sexual violence is likely higher than figures reflected in any official data, because of underreporting, experts say.
"It can be very scary to come forward and talk with an adult,” said Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association, which provides professional development for school counselors and advocates for them. “Schools have to take a proactive stance. If you’ve got a teacher you know and trust, come to them."
Perhaps the biggest change for teenagers since the 1980s is the prevalence of smartphones, which have had both a positive and negative effect on teens’ experience of dating, sex and assault, experts said.
"It gives more pathways for information and communication, but it also creates some significant vulnerabilities,” Palumbo said. “Unfortunately issues of online sex harassment, online bullying, the way teens can be threatened or harassed for coming forward have increased.”
HOW TEENS ARE REACTING TO KAVANAUGH ACCUSATIONS
After Swetnick’s allegation against Kavanaugh was released on Wednesday, several teens who spoke to NBC News said they didn’t see how the federal judge could be allowed to ascend to the highest court in the land.
“If this isn’t the nail in the coffin, I don’t know what would be able to stop the process,” said Andrew Liston, 19, a sophomore at Florida State University.
In an interview earlier in the week, Liston said he learned about the importance of sexual consent from his mother and sister, and he feels firmly that 17-year-olds, Kavanaugh’s age at the time of Ford’s allegation, should be held responsible for their actions.
"Consent at any age is consent,” Liston said. “I'm 19. I'm a sophomore in college, and if I did something like that two years ago, that would be my character for the rest of my life."
The Kavanaugh accusations recently came up in a civics class at A.G. West Black Hills High School in Tumwater, Washington, said Amber Herzog, 17, a senior at the school. Herzog, a sexual abuse survivor, said she has been following the case’s developments closely and she’s horrified by the allegations.
“It makes me more fearful that someone who is supposed to help people could be corrupt and in power,” Herzog said. “If he gets elected as Supreme Court justice, I’m not sure I want to stay in America.”
McLaughlin, the Winnetka, Illinois, teen, said she hopes her generation is inspired and activated by the #MeToo movement — and makes a lasting difference in reducing sexual assault and the silence surrounding it.
“I’m a 17-year-old girl. I shouldn’t be hearing about politicians being sexual abusers and think ‘Oh, another one,’” McLaughlin said. “I would hope to God that I’m going to be the generation and group that makes a change.”