Until schools help boys understand personal accountability, they are tacitly endorsing the misogyny that still thrives in some elite classrooms.
Three years ago, I sat in a quiet library speaking with a young woman about her experience at the boarding school she attended. She was a senior and she was more than ready to graduate, she explained, because though the school had been coed for years, to her it still felt like the all-boys school it had been for most of its existence.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s all about them. It’s like we’re here for their benefit.”
Teachers and administrators at the school described her as a student leader, a young woman with a promising future. But as I listened to her explain her school’s social hierarchy and culture, her promising future seemed to have less to do with the elite education she’d received than the spirit of survival she had needed to develop in her four years there.
I spoke with the young woman in the library while I was researching a novel about misogyny and rape culture at boarding schools. Her experiences mirrored those coming to light from prep schools across the country. The most prominent recent example, of course, is the allegation from Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of pinning her to a bed and covering her mouth to muffle her screams during a party they both attended when he was a student at Georgetown Prep, an elite boarding school in Washington, D.C.
Once the allegations were made public, defenses of Kavanaugh rolled in quickly, characterizing the event, if it happened, as a youthful indiscretion. All too often people dismiss this kind of behavior as just “boys being boys.” That old adage suggests the behavior is innocent. Kavanaugh himself has joked, “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.” The subtext is that boys will be boys—and we’re not supposed to talk about what they do.
What some boys do at these elite private schools might be as seemingly benign as pranking a school meeting by performing sexually charged dances. Or it might be, as an alumna from another boarding school detailed to me during my research, a rug in the cafeteria that she said only seniors were allowed to stand on and from which, allegedly, boys called out rankings of the attractiveness of underclass girls on a scale of one to 10 as they walked by. Or, more disturbingly, it might mean forcing a 15-year-old girl to perform oral sex on five members of her school’s hockey team, an incident that reportedly took place at Milton Academy in Massachusetts during the 2004–05 academic year, according to Vanity Fair.