By Christopher Smithers
Like many Americans, Judge Brett Kavanaugh enjoys his beer.
That much was clear from the Senate hearing last week. Repeatedly during questions, and in his testimony, the Supreme Court nominee reminded us that as a high school student he drank beer with his friends. “Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did,” he said.
And he’s not wrong. According to the Foundation for Childhood Development, over 40% of high school students reported having engaged in binge drinking in 1983, the year Kavanaugh graduated from Georgetown Prep. (By comparison, the percentage was 17.7% in 2015.)
As someone who has spent his entire professional life involved in addiction research and services, I was struck throughout the hearing that the judge’s drinking alone could have been his undoing.
Combining the stereotypes associated with alcohol stigma with problematic drinking situations in his past, creates pre-conditioned thinking about his character and defects. It’s almost as if the drinking is the crime, not the alleged attack on Christine Blasey Ford.
Alcohol is certainly involved in sexual assault and harassment, along with other crimes. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking. But we’d be wrong to attribute the crime to the alcohol, as if an evil demon had suddenly possessed the attacker. Millions of people in our country and around the world get high and drunk and don’t harass or assault while “under the influence.”
In fact, the same NIAAA study concluded, “Although alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur, this phenomenon does not prove that alcohol use causes sexual assault….In some cases, the desire to commit a sexual assault may actually cause alcohol consumption.”
Other alcohol stigmas emerged during the hearing. As has been widely reported, while the perpetrators of sexual assault have often been drinking, so have the victims. But asking Ford, the victim, if she had been drinking is intended to suggest that her behavior or character contributed to the attack. Did one beer — or 100 — mean she wanted to be attacked? Obviously not.
For many of us focused on addiction and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), how some senators questioned Kavanaugh, and how this is playing out on a national stage, also seems to suggest that if he abused alcohol as a young man, he may lack the moral character to sit on the Court, when it is the alleged assault that should of course be the primary focus.
The judge and his supporters are tapping into the same stigma and adding to it by pointing to his many accomplishments — high school grades, an Ivy League education, church-going habits — as if to prove he has high moral character and could therefore not have engaged in that type of drinking and succeeded.
Putting aside the fact that these marks of privilege tell us nothing about moral character, what isn’t lost on anyone, or shouldn’t be, is that many accomplished lawyers, doctors, artists, writers and, yes, politicians, abuse alcohol and have had and currently suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder.
Drinking and drug use by our young people is a major issue, one that contributes terribly to driving deaths and accidents, long-term illness and other problems. It is not, however, an indication of moral character, something that even now we must remind ourselves of after decades of science and research have helped us better understand AUD and addiction.