We can’t say we didn’t try. Anti-rape activists all over the country mobilized and marched and called out senators with new forms of heartfelt testimonials combined with direct action in elevators! With Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination now confirmed, we know we lost the battle, but we found some new allies, new insights, and new methods to win the war.
What we witnessed is, in a real sense, the “best case scenario” for accusers of sexual assault. The principal accusation against Kavanaugh, as made by Christine Blasey Ford, was taken seriously. Her charge was investigated by the FBI. She had an excellent team of lawyers. Major media across the country sent investigative journalists of their own to follow through on the details of the case and gave her story serious coverage. Both print and digital media solicited opinion essays by well-known feminist commentators.
The Kavanaugh case involved a rarified class in this society but the effects of the debates and decisions that resulted from it will reverberate on every level of society.
And, of course, Blasey Ford is white, middle class, mature in age, the mother in a reassuringly heterosexual family and a professional whose expertise includes memory functions of the brain. She’s even blond.
Furthermore, Blasey Ford’s accusations were supported by other women, women she did not know previously. These women reported eyewitness accounts of similar behavior from Kavanaugh, involving alcohol-fueled sexual misconduct that occurred in close proximity to his male buddies, possibly for their benefit as much as his. Like Blasey Ford, these accusers have all gone on the record in public. Even if their accounts were not followed up by the FBI, they made it into the public airwaves. And, Blasey Ford was willing to subject herself to hours of public testimony in which a traumatic event in her life would be picked apart. She had to face questions from not just a single skeptical attorney, as many accusers must face, but a room full of them.
In sum, we have watched as these accusers — Blasey Ford, Ramirez and Swetnik — attempted to use official channels, to play by the book, to ‘cooperate,’ to follow the rules.
And yet, within 36 hours of her accusation becoming public, Blasey Ford had to relocate herself and her family from their home because of credible death threats. She had to move locations under cover of darkness as if she had threatened a Mafia crime boss. The domestic-violence support organization that Deborah Ramirez is affiliated with also had to institute security measures against threats it received, and Ramirez had to take leave from her job as volunteer coordinator at a Housing and Human Services Department in Boulder. Swetnik’s credibility was attacked by a former boyfriend who made a charge against her about a different and irrelevant case, and as a result, her account in the Kavanaugh case was ignored. The very idea of gang rapes perpetrated by white male high school students was castigated as ridiculous. This reminded me of the Senators in 1991 who expressed naïve surprise at Anita Hill’s descriptions of the pornography scenes Clarence Thomas described to her. Uh huh.
Although the Kavanaugh case involved a rarified class in this society, replete with prep schools and auspicious careers, the effects of the debates and decisions that result from it will reverberate on every level of society. Character assassination of Ford will affect those considering coming forward. Repeated debates over the length of time it took her to come forward will work to shame some into continued silence. For whom are such events as Ford describes forgettable? For whom are such events a nagging torment? For whom is it safe to speak up? Anyone?
The threats and repercussions faced by Kavanaugh’s accusers are not uncommon outcomes. Twenty percent of victims say they are not reporting because of fear of retaliation, primarily economic or physical. For this and other reasons, incidents of sexual violation, ranging from harassment to rape, are the most under-reported form of crime. By conservative estimates, two out of three are never reported to the police. Those that are reported are very unlikely to result in convictions. In fact, out of every 1000 rapes, 994 will result in no conviction.
Do we still need to wonder why victims rarely report? Or why they or their advocates seek out “unofficial venues” to warn others while maintaining their anonymity? Can anyone still believe that non-victims spread false accusations just for the glory of being a victim?
The peril faced by Blasey Ford and her family was witnessed around the country, but the usual scenario is a persecution carried out in the safety of the private sphere. A student stops coming to class, a co-worker leaves without explanation, a friend stops answering emails. To ensure their safety, and to lessen the scope of the retaliation, victims ghost their friends, their families, their own public lives. They delete twitter and facebook, leave jobs, and move.
Because of my scholarship in the area of sexual violence, I’ve had many students come to me over the years, looking for support, suggestions, safety. Some had their tires slashed, others had their friends harassed, their doors pounded on at all times of the night, their phones ringing off the hook. One received threatening letters from the perpetrator that he would be back to ‘finish the job.’
Now that there are more highly publicized cases like Ford’s, the retaliation can be spread to an anonymous army, an unseen horde of guerilla-style anti-feminist activists. Their motivation is not based on knowing the accuser or accused personally; rather, they are clearly incensed at the growing power that victims—generally women—are gaining in the public sphere. This power was represented by Kavanaugh in his opening statement as a ‘whirlwind,’ a maelstrom of female emotion and confusion that will bring anarchy to our hallowed institutions.
This may seem like more than a bit of hysteria on Kavanaugh’s part, but it is true that this case was indeed at the nodal point of an intense political and cultural war zone, between political parties and political ideologies. At stake is the future of critical social policies that will affect millions of lives. And, because this case was so much in the headlines, it will have an impact on the capacity of victims to make accusations after a long time has passed, on the norms of teenage sexual behavior, and on the ways in which accusations will be heard, judged, and discredited in the future. This is what no doubt motivated the armies of skilled internet trolls who tried to silence Kavanaugh’s accusers.
Yet, in the ordinary cases of sexual assault accusations, one may still wonder about why there is such a low incidence of reporting. Why do victims of sexual violations so often remain silent, failing to report even serious crimes to the police?
Conservatives contended that delay is an obvious sign of malfeasance, an indication of deceit. Any self-respecting women would defend her honor immediately, they suggested, if she were truly violated. Any innocent accuser would refuse any further contact or communication with the man who assailed her dignity. Any other sort of behavior on her part is a sure sign that the charge is a falsification.
Some liberals contended, on the other hand, that silence is the effect of trauma. The crime itself is what silences victims by producing a heightened emotional state where fear determines all their actions.
Both are wrong. Silence and the decision not to report these kinds of assaults is socially orchestrated, man-made. It is the result neither of deceit nor the natural conditions of trauma. Children are happy to tattle. Adult women have an innate capacity to speak up for themselves. But this capacity is ambushed by social conventions about speaking about our sexual lives in detail, speaking against those with more social status than we have, speaking about our own, as opposed to others’ oppressions.
What made the Senate Committee confirmation hearings a “circus,” exactly? My suspicion is that many of those who declaimed this event as a “circus” find any detailed discussions of sexual events distasteful in the public sphere. The topic breaks a taboo of polite speech. The particulars are uncomfortable to hear the first time, much less repeated. The inevitable images that come to mind are repugnant. The calm and rational, civil disputations that many conservatives imagine to have heretofore ruled the nation’s elite institutions cannot share space with these images of hands passing over bodies, mouths forcibly shut, penises thrust in faces, queues of boys awaiting the chance to engage in serial rapes. There is no way to speak about such events with language that will not be considered a transgression on polite civility.
Maybe it is natural that no one really wants to be forced to hear these descriptions of disturbing events. But some may also feel they are entitled to live in a genteel world where ugly and unpleasant stories can be kept out of the room.
This is a revolution over who can speak, who can be accused, and who will bear the brunt of the costs.
I recall an event at a college campus not long ago where I was picketing a Parents Weekend event on behalf of the union efforts for adjunct faculty. This was a fancy school, private and expensive, with beautifully landscaped grounds. I leafleted a woman my age, smartly dressed, looking like she had just stepped out of the hairdressers. I said to her, this leaflet provides information on the working conditions of the faculty who will be teaching your child. She looked at me with an angry distaste and refused to take the leaflet. She said between clenched teeth: “There is a time and a place for such things, and this is not it.” I had sullied the celebration, the ceremony, the sunny morning. She made me feel as if I were out there on the sidewalk selling diarrhea medication. I sensed if she did not take this leaflet now, she would never avail herself of any avenue of information about the topic of injustice perpetrated in this elite rarified space.
When is the time and place to air our experiences of sexual violation? Where is the proper, public space in which to debate the seriousness of these events? Yet how can we expect the public, or elected representatives, to deliberate in the absence of details? Details about beds, penises, and hands that shove you into rooms and roam over your body?
What exactly is the time and place for such discussion? For many people, the correct answer is only the private and cloistered room of the therapist or the religious sanctuary.
The silence of victims of these sorts of crimes is systematically produced, enforced, and managed. Most victims are not operating in the ‘best case scenario,’ but in lives structured by a subservience created by socially made disadvantages. If we speak against bosses or co-workers, we are likely to lose our livelihood, and the same is true if we speak against partners. If we speak against friends we are likely to not be believed, and then to face personal repercussions of harassment. If we speak against family members we may lose our right to be included within our very own families.
Maintaining the smooth functioning of every form of social connection and economic activity is put above our needs.
What becomes clear is that the systematic nature of our enforced silence is not only about our credibility: the credibility of (usually) those with lower social status, such as females, workers, children, people of color, disabled folks, and queer folks. It is not just that we are not likely to be believed, but that what matters to us does not matter ‘objectively’. Our accusations may be true, and yet nonetheless, as the New York Times lead editorial on October 1 suggested, be “insignificant.” We have seen that what white teenage boys do, whatever it is, has been deemed insignificant. What happens to young girls is insignificant. What happens a long time ago is insignificant. Most importantly, whatever crimes have been perpetrated by fine upstanding Yale graduates with resumes fit for the Supreme Court is insignificant.
Yet there is cause for hope.
The intensity of the backlash is a sign that we are living through a cultural revolution. Though the current government is headed by a perp-in-chief, even the institutions of the state are riven from within between partisans from both sides. Victims are not backing down. Even after seeing what has happened in the best case scenario of Blasey Ford’s accusation, they are accosting senators in elevators, marching in the street, telling their stories from the bullhorn of social media. We have threatened some of the central frameworks that feed the epidemic, which is why we must be silenced.
Revolutions are messy affairs. Nuance is lost, decisions have to be made quickly, and there are always undeserved casualties. But what we are fighting for goes way beyond any individual case, or individual career. This is a revolution over who can speak, who can be accused, and who will bear the brunt of the costs.
The key is to keep the fight focused on reducing sexual violation in all its forms, individual and institutional. To not let it get hitched to the wagon of one political party, or diverted to beef up the carceral state, or interpreted through heteropatriarchal frames that cast male protection as our only hope.
Everything the Republicans trotted out to establish Kavanaugh’s squeaky clean morals is, of course, to some of us, a reason for suspicion. The most notorious fraternities school their members in good works: from charity drives to youth mentoring. Good Christians can prefer women to marry their rapists rather than abort their fetuses. The kind of resume Kavanaugh can tout — no dropping out, no convictions, no unexplained gaps in his career climb — are often the product of invisible armies of support: the cop who chooses to look the other way, the teachers that give him a break, the victims who never report because they are doubtful they will be believed over Mr. Clean.
Kavanaugh is being savagely ridiculed on late night television, in stand up comedy routines, in homemade YouTube scenes. Everything about him that would usually generate respect is now seen as a sign of moral depravity, self-importance, hypocrisy. Change is afoot.
An earlier version of this article appeared as “Kavanaugh, Ford and the ‘Best Case Scenario’ for Accusers of Sexual Assault” at indypendent.org on Sept. 21. It was updated and expanded for the Indypendent’s October issue. This is reader supported news. Make a contribution today.
Illustration by David Hollenbach.