In Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook, he identified himself as a “Renate Alumnius.” It was an allusion, repeated on other boys’ pages, to the supposed sexual conquest of a girl named Renate Schroeder.
This kind of macho bragging, whether based on real events or not, can give a young woman what’s politely referred to as “a reputation.” What teenagers like Kavanaugh probably didn’t bother to consider is how giving a girl that kind of reputation can open her up to bullying, abuse and a lifetime of emotional trauma.
I know because I was the “class slut.” Ask anyone from my high school class, and I’m sure they’d tell you. What I wish I could have told them then, and what I wish I could tell them now, was just how dangerous and damaging that label turned out to be.
It started on the first day of sixth grade.
On the last day of camp in upstate New York, I’d had my first real kiss with the boy I had a crush on all summer ― in the hammock on the front porch of his bunkhouse as we said goodbye. I’ll spare you the mopey song lyrics I copied into my diary when I got home to Bethesda, Maryland, and missed him terribly, so far away in Westchester County, New York. When I arrived for the first day of middle school, still pining for a romance that could never be, I told my friends in the cafeteria about our magical kiss.
Word got around and somehow one fairly chaste kiss turned into making out. As I was apparently the first to have kissed anyone, or at least to have told people about it, this was evidence that I was “fast.” But of course, the rumors didn’t stop with kissing. Though my behavior was pretty on par with what I witnessed and heard of my classmates doing, I was the “slutty one.” So by seventh grade everyone “knew” that I was giving blow jobs, though I never had.
Boys openly groped me in our school hallways. My AOL instant messages were filled with propositions for sex acts I hadn’t even heard of at that point, let alone actually done. The rumors of my sluttiness made their way to the high school boys, who came on to me while we loitered on Wisconsin Avenue outside the local movie theater. Eventually, I let a 17-year-old take me into the park up the street. He expected a blow job. I just wanted to make out. He got his way.
Things escalated further when a boy asked if I would meet him in the stairwell during third period to talk about an issue with his brother. He groped me, and when I said no, he pushed me to my knees and unzipped his pants. I ran away, back to class, though I doubt I learned whatever the teacher was trying to teach that day. My mind was reeling from how quickly a boy I had been friends with for years could get physically aggressive. How he felt so entitled to my body, all by eighth grade.
Weeks later, a boy put a price tag sticker on my shirt at a school dance ― because I was a whore, get it? All these years later and I can still feel the shame and hurt of that moment. I shoved him into a trash can because he deserved it, and because I didn’t know how to tell him that his rumors and jokes had just led one of his peers to shove his penis in my face.
Being labeled a slut at 11 years old meant I spent the next seven years in school fending off advances and narrowly dodging being raped. Though I was hurt by those interactions, I never conceived of them as anything outside the range of normal. As far as I could tell, this was just the way boys behaved.
That I never once felt like the adults in my life would take me seriously if I told them what was happening can be attributed to the “boys will be boys” attitudes that permeated my public schools, the elite private schools some of those boys attended and American culture writ large.
By high school, the rumors were out of control. In sophomore year, a classmate supposedly found video online of me doing porn (the only resemblance was in the shade of our hair and general size of our breasts). I heard that after our senior prom, I’d had sex with six different guys, including my prom date. (He was gay. While others spent after-after-prom drinking at house parties, my group of friends went back to Michelle’s basement and played board games.)
By senior year, word of my supposed sexual prowess made its way from Walt Whitman High to Landon, an all-boys prep school up the street (and a rival of Georgetown Prep). I met a Landon boy when, I think, he IMed me one day. The first and only time we hung out, he parked his Jeep on the access road along Wilson Lane and leaned over to kiss me.
I told him I only wanted to be friends; I had a boyfriend. He told me he’d heard from the guys at my school that I gave the best head. He wrapped his hand tightly around the back of my neck and pushed my head into his crotch. When my screaming made it difficult for him to stay erect, he hit me hard across the side of my head with an open hand. I wrestled free of his grip and then kicked the door and window of his car until I could break away and run home. The sound of his epithets faded as I sprinted down Aberdeen Road to the safety of my bedroom a couple of blocks away.
The friends I told at the time ― about the rumor of my blow job skills, not a word about the violence ― said I should take it as a compliment.
The message to boys has always been clear: Any girl who’s a “slut” is there for male enjoyment and doesn’t have any right to say no. A “slut” said yes to some other guy, so she doesn’t get to say no to you. The girls and women whose real or imagined promiscuity lands them with that label become the scapegoat for boys’ and men’s harmful behavior. One kiss at summer camp somehow set me on a path where many boys didn’t recognize that I had any right to withhold consent.
I stayed away from dating or hooking up with most of the boys in my school for years, having learned that it wasn’t safe. Instead, I dated older boys, who seemed more respectful. I thought dating older guys made me cool. Obviously, I was smart and fun and mature, not like the other girls my age.
These older “boys” were grown men ― 24-, 25-, 26-year-olds who wanted to spend time with me, as long as the night ended with them getting off to their own “Barely Legal” fantasies. I fantasize now about getting them charged with statutory rape.
My high school experience left severe and lasting effects on my self-esteem. What I came to expect from the way boys and men saw and treated me as a teenager became a self-fulfilling prophecy for a while. If they were going to call me a slut no matter what I did, I might as well be one. It’s all boys and men wanted from me anyway, right?
Twenty years after I told friends about that first kiss and it spiraled into a reputation I was never able to shake, I still sometimes struggle to relate to men who aren’t trying to fuck me.
My classmates were being kids ― cruel jerks who didn’t realize how this label would follow me. I wonder if they realize now what rumors can do. I wonder if Brett Kavanaugh and his prep school friends know or care now about the straight line between bragging about their supposed sexual conquests and the ways boys and men feel entitled to abuse ― and legislate about ― women’s bodies.
I wonder if any of them would care that I still have a nightmare nearly every week where I’m trying to kick my way out of a Jeep whose window and door never break.