We've Been Tolerating Bretts—But Not Anymore

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Published
Dec 3, 2018

Dec 3, 2018 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

I went to college with Brett Kavanaugh. No, not really. He's a lot older than me. Plus, he went to Yale University CT, and I went to Duke University NC.

But, at Duke, I was surrounded by Bretts on campus: the many wealthy, white men who thought they deserved sex with women on campus and off. They were everywhere. And so, unsurprisingly, was campus sexual assault. At school, women had to tolerate the Bretts because there was no other option.

The Brett Bubble

There's a lot of focus on campus sexual assault lately, which is heartening. Much of the focus is on student‐athletes. In fact, one of the biggest campus sexual assault scandals involving Duke centered on its men's lacrosse team in 2006. The one thing the Duke lacrosse case does is elicit strong opinions. And, one could argue, the Duke lacrosse case isn't about campus rape at all. Weren't the alleged rapists cleared?

There are a few things that happened for certain: Over spring break in 2006, the men's lacrosse team hosted an off‐campus, underage drinking party at a house on North Buchanan Avenue, which was located directly across the street from Duke's East Campus. For the party, the men's lacrosse team hired two black female dancers to perform at the house. Before the start of spring break, the lacrosse coach gave each player a large sum of cash for food—$500 each according to one player—which means, say, if 30 of the 47 players were at the house, there might have been $15,000 in cash there. Only one of the players was black. The party ended with animosity between the players and the dancers, and at least one player called the dancers the n‐word as they left.

These facts are not in dispute.

Let's agree that's all that happened, no rape or assault. Just most of the team's players with thousands of dollars in cash—who could drink underage with no legal consequences and thought it was OK to hire two women to come to their house and verbally abuse them.

What kind of bubble do you have to live in to think that that kind of behavior—which according to neighbors in that East Campus neighborhood happened all of the time at that house—would yield no consequences whatsoever?

That's the Brett Bubble. We saw it on display in the Kavanaugh hearings when Kavanaugh showed his angry frustration, like a toddler who had his iPad taken away. He couldn't believehe was being held accountable for his behavior. He couldn't believe that someone, a woman, was threatening the bubble of nonaccountability he was used to.

I graduated from Duke in 1998—years before the 2006 lacrosse case. But I didn't leave Durham, not really. I lived in the same neighborhood of that off‐campus lacrosse house for most of the years I was in law school, and then for years after that, after I met the man I eventually married. I was their neighbor. I stood across the street on East Campus and watched the house get demolished, along with many other people. It fell down like a house of cards.

Scoring Duke

When I enrolled at Duke, I was 18. I had come from boarding school, which in many ways prepared me for college: doing laundry, managing my meals and handling time for homework, social life and the like.

In other ways, though, I wasn't ready at all. My high school didn't have a football team, or any big‐time sports, not like Duke does. And fraternity life shocked me. At Duke, the fraternities are located in dorms on campus. And because the best housing on campus houses fraternities, the participation in fraternities is high—when I was there, participation was roughly 50% (and sororities at 60%). That's far higher than the roughly 20% participation at the nearby UNC‐Chapel Hill.

Greek life dominated at Duke and revolved around alcohol. Drinking was a part of the culture. And attending Duke, for most Duke undergraduates (not me), was about partying, spending your parents' money (or pretending to if you didn't have it) and making connections so you could get a cushy banking job. Duke was about getting good grades on your pre‐med requirements, so you could get into medical school. Duke wasn't about learning, but scoring—and for the guys, it was about scoring in every sense of the word.

So Many Bretts

When I was at Duke, I was surrounded by Bretts, and they made Duke a miserable place to be.

I tried to ignore the Bretts, the way one ignores mosquitoes on a camping trip. They don't stop biting, and you don't stop bleeding, but the pain recedes in your mind in its incessant incessantness. But then the Kavanaugh hearings happened, and I had to listen to his excuses, anger and self‐righteousness, and my memories came back.

Kavanaugh now has a lifetime appointment, and I'm a lawyer and former law professor. Supreme Court opinions are my Shakespeare. For the rest of my life (not just Justice Kavanaugh's), I will be forced to interact with Supreme Court opinions he has authored or co‐authored. He is now a permanent fixture in my professional life.

It's a similar case with Justice Clarence Thomas. I'm old enough that I watched professor Anita Hill in hearings when Thomas was nominated. I have spent my entire professional life with a known sex abuser on the highest court in the land. And there is nothing we can do about it. What does that teach us about justice? What does it teach our children?

I didn't want those Brett memories back, to be honest. I wanted them to stay gone, like that house off of East Campus, flattened by the passage of time and by neglect. But they came back.

One Brett at Duke, a guy I met in a poetry seminar, showed up at my on‐campus apartment one evening, claiming he'd locked himself out of his place. No problem, I said, you can crash here until morning. I thought he was really nice, smart, and sensitive. In the night, he snuck into my bedroom, and I pushed him off of me. The situation was very uncomfortable, and I fell back asleep. He masturbated on my bed while I was asleep and then left. I didn't know he'd done this foul thing until morning. I didn't tell anyone.

Another Brett, a guy I'd met one summer and played sports with, showed up at my apartment to hang out. He was fun and kind, I thought. As the evening wore on, he started crying, begging me to sleep with him. I said “No.” He grabbed me and tried to forcibly kiss me. I pushed him off of me. He ran out the door. I avoided him on campus after that. I didn't tell anyone.

I could go on. There were so many Bretts. They were all awful, and they are likely successful now. Duke, and places like Duke, grew them like weeds.

If one of those Bretts who hurt me were nominated for the Supreme Court, what would I do? Would I testify in Congress? Could I be so brave? I hope so. I hope I could speak for all of the other women who've been harmed, to say, “There are men and women who could do this job who do not believe that they're better than everyone else. Let's give them the job instead.”