As Christine Blasey Ford prepares to testify before a Senate committee about sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, many people have come forward to defend the Supreme Court nominee, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Even people who say something might have happened between the two are excusing him. Some say he was young — a teenager in Ford's case and a college student in the case of Deborah Ramirez, another woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. He shouldn't be held liable for actions that were so long ago, they say. Others have referred to rough horseplay or stupid, drunken high school behavior.

The case has shined a spotlight on young men's attitudes toward sexual violence and whether they have shifted in the years since Kavanaugh was a student.

Research suggests there are at least a few reasons to be optimistic. But some attitudes have simply manifested in subtler ways.

"We've come very far," said Alan Berkowitz, a consultant who has been researching and teaching about men's role in ending violence against women for more than 25 years. "But we have a very long way to go."

In an earlier time, studies show, many people saw sexual violence only as forcible rape by a stranger.

Ford has accused Kavanaugh of holding her down and drunkenly groping her at a high school party, and Ramirez said he exposed himself to her in college. A third woman, Julie Swetnick, came forward Wednesday, claiming Kavanaugh spiked drinks at a high school party where she was gang-raped, though she did not say he participated in the attack. Kavanaugh has denied all allegations.

Today — thanks in large part to the MeToo movement — there's greater recognition of different types of sexual violence, from catcalling on the street to harassment at work to sexual assault, said Sarah McMahon, director of Rutgers University's Center on Violence Against Women and Children. And we know sexual violence most often occurs between people who know each other.

Yet other myths around sexual violence persist. One that's taken center stage in the Kavanaugh allegations is the idea of a "good guy." Sixty-five women signed a letter vouching for Kavanaugh's character, and his wife spoke of his kindness and compassion on TV.

But "very often the people who perpetuate sexual harassment and assault are otherwise very respected people," Berkowitz said.

The myth that good guys can't commit acts of sexual violence makes it difficult for men to call one another out, said Xavier Washington, a senior at Temple University and vice speaker of the student government parliament.

"It can be hard when you know someone for a long time and don't see that side of them," Washington said. Even if you see them pressuring a girl or making an inappropriate comment, "you think: 'It's my friend, I know he's joking. He'd never have any malicious intent.' "

Xavier Washington is a a senior at Temple University and vice speaker of the student government parliament.
Courtesy Xavier Washington
Xavier Washington is a a senior at Temple University and vice speaker of the student government parliament.

That mentality contributes to a culture of men sticking together, especially in hypermasculine environments, like fraternities and sports teams, Washington said.

McMahon's research on rape myths among college students found many excuse the perpetrator's actions by saying he didn't mean to do it or didn't realize what he did was wrong. This belief is furthered when alcohol is involved.

Yet studies show alcohol has the opposite effect for victims. They are held more accountable if they've been drinking — an issue that has arisen in both Ford's and Ramirez's cases. It's an example of another attitude around sexual assault that has persisted for years: The victim is responsible.

While the most overt forms of victim blaming have decreased, the belief still shows up in subtler ways, said Moira O'Neil, coauthor of a report on perceptions of sexual violence published by the FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank.

"We didn't hear talk like, 'Well, she shouldn't have been wearing that,' which you would hear in earlier times," O'Neil said. Instead, people said women need to learn to defend themselves or learn how to drink appropriately on college campuses.

Why change is so hard

Daniel Tomascik takes it hard when his girlfriend of five years recounts instances of being catcalled on the street or harassed in a store. "When there's someone else you put on the same priority level as yourself, hearing that hurts," said the junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

It's enough to make him speak up among friends when he hears a derogatory comment toward women. But calling out a stranger in public is different. "Although I know I should, I don't know that I would," he said. "I don't want the confrontation."

Daniel Tomascik is a junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Courtesy Daniel Tomascik
Daniel Tomascik is a junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

It's a sentiment expressed by many men, Berkowitz said, who believe they are in the minority for disagreeing with sexual aggression against women. But that's not true.

"Most boys and men are uncomfortable with and do not agree with sexual objectification and exploitation of women," Berkowitz said. But because "no one brags about not having sex," their voices are often silent. No one speaks out, fearing backlash and isolation.

This is especially true for teens and college students, who care deeply about what their peers think, McMahon said.

Change can come from letting people know the truth about what most men believe, Berkowitz said. The approach has worked to decrease alcohol consumption among young people, who overestimate how much their peers drink.

At many colleges, this work is beginning to take place informally. Alberto Gonzalez, president of Phi Alpha Delta fraternity at the College of New Jersey, said he explicitly tells new recruits to look out for the safety of girls who attend their parties. "We are hosting them," he tells his fraternity brothers. "We need to treat them with respect."

Alberto Gonzalez (front right) with other members of the executive board of the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity at the College of New Jersey.
Courtesy Alberto Gonzalez
Alberto Gonzalez (front right) with other members of the executive board of the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity at the College of New Jersey.

Gonzalez has proposed an amendment to the fraternity's constitution that would require members to inform the college of instances of sexual assault. "We've become much more vigilant of our actions," he said.

Washington, at Temple, said it's important for men to be involved in the conversation on ending sexual violence. Before he arrived on campus, he wasn't aware of the issue, but now he helps organize a sexual-assault awareness week.

"Once I came here and started having people who are close to me tell me traumatic situations they've been in," he said, "it feels like it's my responsibility to do something about it."