Brett Kavanaugh accusations: Are young men in America scared?

By Georgina Rannard
BBC News, Washington

Media caption,
Trump: "Somebody could accuse you of something and you're automatically guilty."

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that it was a "difficult" and "scary" time for young men in the US and mocked a woman who says she was assaulted by his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Mr Trump was expressing support for Mr Kavanaugh as the FBI investigates claims of sexual misconduct by several women, including Christine Blasey Ford, against the judge.

The remarks come a year after the #MeToo movement toppled prominent Hollywood figures and thousands of women shared their experiences of sexual harassment.

Is the president right? Do young men feel under threat, and have any changed their behaviour and views in the past 12 months?


Drake King, an 18-year-old student from Tennessee, told the BBC that he did not feel scared as a young man in college.

"I feel comfortable with this social change - it helps me realise what I've been doing wrong as a man. Self-reflection is something that most people need," he says.

Image source, Drake King
Image caption,
Tennessee student Drake King and his girlfriend Maddison McBride

Explaining how he felt he had acted disrespectfully towards women in the past, he believes the guidelines on what is and isn't OK are now clearer: "It helps to have someone tell me what I am doing wrong."

The feeling that #MeToo was a learning experience for young men is echoed by 21-year-old Ohio student Parker Smith.

"Genuinely listening to these perspectives has led me to reflect on my own. #MeToo has helped make me more cognisant of how I handle myself.

"#MeToo has led me to do a better job of listening, which has, in turn, prompted me to be more self-reflective and aware of how women perceive my own actions and those of other men."

Court of public opinion

But many advocates of change also express reservations.

"When the #MeToo movement started a year ago, I thought it could only be a net gain. But too many mess-ups have happened. I think it's wrong that it has moved away from a legal court and into a court of public opinion," says Drake King.

"In my own circle of friends, those who are single feel extremely apprehensive about dating - especially if a bad date may have the potential of being interpreted as assault."

Media caption,
How US teens talk about sexual assault

Anxiety about false accusation is at the forefront of some young adults' minds.

One 2010 study found that 2-10% of rape accusations in the past 20 years were proven to be fake. That does not include unsubstantiated accusations where an investigation was unable to prove a sexual assault occurred, so an accurate figure for the total remains unknown.

"I was pretty sure sexual assault was more common than society was willing to admit, but I also am fairly certain that false accusations are more common than most of the #MeToo activists would like to think," suggests Aiden, a 23-year-old student in Arizona.

He admits he is more cautious now, including keeping both hands visible in group photos with women.

"If society has the duty to protect women from the extreme minority of men who are offenders (and it does have that duty), shouldn't society also protect men from the extreme minority of false-accusers?" he adds.

"I'm hearing, 'if you don't believe her claim, you are re-victimising her'. Since scepticism of a claim is heterodoxy, people will accept a claim either blindly or just to avoid being ostracised."

Fear that public opinion is supplanting legal judgement also worries some young men.

Image source, Adam Peterson
Image caption,
Adam Peterson says he does not find President Trump's comments that young men are scared to be unreasonable

"Frankly, my behaviour hasn't changed at all since the #MeToo movement," says Adam Peterson, a 29-year old father of one in Utah.

Although he is pleased that survivors of sexual assault have a more powerful platform to speak from, he believes the movement is "overblown".

"I don't know anyone, myself included, that hasn't faced unwanted sexual advances. No-one thinks that's right but it's also a far cry from rape. Treating these two very different things as equivalent is a disservice to people that have been through rape," he added.

"Guilty until proven innocent is a scary precedent for anyone not just young men, and publicly saying so is a good thing."

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One 24-year-old recent graduate shared his experience of calling out male colleagues after two women at a previous workplace told him the men had been behaving inappropriately.

"The guys had been flirting and it was going overboard - asking the women to go to a club and a hotel afterwards, with the express interest of having sex," explained Callian Stokes.

"Overall the men were very sexist, telling women that moving a chair was a man's job. We ended up having a meeting to address the issue along with some other interns who were getting too comfortable touching female staff."

Image source, Parker Smith
Image caption,
"Me Too has helped me to become a better man by leading me to try to see things from a female perspective," says Ohio student Parker Smith

"I think it's a scary time for men that sexually harass and beyond, because they are afraid of getting caught or outed. Don't be a creep and learn to leave people alone if you don't already know that social skill," Callian added.

Another student, Nicholas Judd, said he has called out classmates and teachers at school for saying "boys will be boys" and that girls who dressed provocatively "deserved to be assaulted".

"I was appalled and spoke out against the popular belief that all accusers of important figures were lying," he explained, adding, "to counter the culture I am in, women should be given an equal voice to hold us more accountable".

Ohio student Parker Smith agreed, suggesting that some fear amongst men is a positive step.

"If men's actions have become more cautious out of fear of being accused of harassment or assault, I say 'good, great!' They should."