The morning after the nation witnessed over four hours of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s grueling, emotional, and intimate testimony detailing the sexual assault she experienced in high school, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IO) spoke at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. Dr. Ford alleged Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court Nominee, was the perpetrator. Senator Grassley lamented that the burden of proof was on Dr. Ford, not Judge Kavanaugh, and asserted she did not meet it. Despite protest from citizens and legislators alike, Senator Grassley went ahead with a vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee, sending it to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote.
During Dr. Ford’s testimony, Senator Grassley, along with other Senate Judiciary Republicans, yielded their time to question Dr. Ford to Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. They sat quietly, listening, as Dr. Ford spoke. When Judge Kavanaugh began his testimony, emotions ran high. Judge Kavanaugh raised his voice in anger and frustration, sometimes talking back and acting combatively toward female Democratic Senators questioning him. When it was time to question Kavanaugh, Republicans ignored Prosecutor Mitchell and spoke for themselves, often lamenting on the hardship Kavanaugh has faced since allegations of sexual misconduct were made public. One Senator went so far as the describe Kavanaugh’s experience as hell. Dr. Ford was barely mentioned.
What does this tell us about our culture? What does it mean, if for the purposes of a job interview, a sexual assault survivor comes forward about an applicant’s misconduct, and the applicant’s future employer conveys it is on the survivor to meet the criminal standard of the burden of proof? Are we a society that largely believes survivors or actively disbelieves and blames them?
There are many reasons survivors of interpersonal violence, including sexual violence, relationship violence, and stalking, do not come forward with their stories or report their experiences to law enforcement. One of the biggest reasons is fear of not being believed. It’s a reasonable fear. One study found “victims may be better off receiving no support at all than receiving reactions they consider to be hurtful” (Campbell et al, 2001). There are many reasons that explain why 69% of sexual assaults go unreported, including fear of retaliation and fear of not being taken seriously by police (Department of Justice, 2013). In the aftermath of victimblaming comments by government officials, #WhyIDidntReport trended on Twitter. The hashtag explored the countless reasons survivors of violence, like Dr. Ford, choose not to report the violence enacted upon them.
When Dr. Ford came forward because the media learned her identity, she had many resources at her disposal that most survivors do not. Dr. Ford has familial wealth, a doctorate, an established career in education and research, and many forms of identity-based privilege. When questioned during the Senate hearings, Dr. Ford was calm, composed, differential, accommodating, and all around likeable. Public reaction to Dr. Ford was very different than the reaction to Anita Hill, a Black woman and law professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Professor Hill was smeared as mentally unstable, promiscuous, and attention seeking.
Unlike Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh displayed heightened emotions and outrage during his testimony. He was applauded by his supporters for it. It was very different response to a public display of anger than that of Serena Williams outrage at the US Open in early September. What does this tell us about who is “believable” and who is able to express emotion without consequence in our society? Why are some survivors believed or placated while others are not?
At the Phoenix Center, we know multiple systems of oppression impact how violence is perpetrated and experienced. We also know the three most important words that can be said to a survivor are, “We believe you.” At the Phoenix Center, we believe you, always.
Campbell, R., Ahrens, C.E., Sefl, T., Wasco, S.M., & Barnes, H.E. (2001). Social reactions to rape victims: Healing and hurtful effects on psychological and physical health outcomes. Violence and Victims, 16, 287-302 (quote on p. 300).
Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 (2013).