What we are witnessing in regard to the accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is, in a real sense, the “best case scenario” for accusers of sexual assault. The accusation by Christine Blasey Ford has been taken seriously. The accuser has an excellent team of lawyers. Major media across the country have sent investigative journalists to follow through on the details of the case, giving it serious coverage. Both print and digital media have solicited opinion essays by well-known feminist commentators.
We are watching an attempt by an accuser 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 has had to relocate herself and her family from their home because of credible death threats.
This is not an uncommon outcome. Twenty percent of victims say they are not reporting because of fear of retaliation, either economic or physical. For this and other reasons, incidents of sexual violation, ranging from harassment to rape, are the most underreported 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 currently faced by Blasey Ford and her family is being 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 accounts, leave jobs and move.
Can anyone still believe that non-victims spread false accusations just for the glory of being a victim?
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 who do not know the accuser or accused personally but are incensed at the growing power that victims — generally women — are gaining in the public sphere. Against this unseen horde of guerilla-style anti-feminist activists, the quest for safety looks to be more of an illusion than ever.
The intensity of the backlash is a sign of change afoot. We are living through a cultural revolution. Though the current government is headed by a perp-in-chef, even the institutions of the state are riven from within between partisans from both sides.
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.
The point of fighting over speech is to contest the frameworks that have fed the epidemic.
Everything the Republicans trot 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.
Although this case involves 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. The continued 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?
Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and author of Rape and Resistance, published this year by Polity Press.
Photo: Women protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court at the Hart Senate Office Building on Friday, Sept. 7. Credit: Phil Roeder.