The country was gripped. In office lounges, on workers’ desktops, in college classrooms, and on their phones during lunch breaks, millions of Americans watched streaming coverage of Christine Blasey Ford, a woman they’d never met, sit before a warring panel of politicians, admit she was terrified to be there, and then bluntly tell her story of sexual assault at the hands of a Supreme Court nominee.
After Ford, a psychology professor, described the assault, she explained how in the months, years, and now decades after she was allegedly held down, groped, and forcibly silenced by a drunken Brett Kavanaugh, she developed anxiety, PTSD symptoms, a fear of flying, and claustrophobia. She had trouble in high school following the attack and in the early years of college. Relationships weren’t easy. Years after she’d married, in fact, she and her husband went into couples therapy when she insisted they spend money on a second door to their house. It was a necessity that stemmed from the attack, she said, to have another way out in case the first door was blocked.
Her husband, a few friends, and her therapist knew about what had happed to Ford long before this hearing. She’d never told her parents.
For survivors of sexual assault, the coverage of supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior in high school has been retraumatizing. But there’s also been hope that giving Ford—one of the three women who’s accused him of sexual assault—an opportunity to tell her story, could somehow shift the cultural narrative: maybe survivors should be taken seriously. Maybe, in the warmer waters of #MeToo, the country is ready to believe a sexual assault survivor enough to finally grasp the toll this kind of trauma takes on one’s life.
Throughout coverage of the hearing, major media and social media flashed the name and numbers of sexual assault hotlines. Calls to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, spiked by 201 percent during and after Ford’s testimony. The nonprofit had already reported a surge of calls in the days leading up to the hearing after President Trump—himself accused of sexual assault by 17 women—asked why, if Kavanaugh’s alleged attack on Ford had been so damaging, she didn’t report it when it happened.
Hashtags were born. #BelieveSurvivors. #WhyIDidn’tReport. Explanations streamed:
• Because the police told me, "Why don't you wait a few more days and then decide if you want to ruin this man's life?"
• Because I thought it was my fault.
• Because I wanted people to see ME, not a victim.
• The one time I did report it, the cop said I was asking for it. Even my own mother yelled at me for being stupid enough to “let” myself get raped. It happened again after the first time. But I didn’t report it. What’s the point?
These stories are not new to therapists, who are often the first ones that survivors tell about their assaults.
Mary Jo Barrett, who runs the Center for Contextual Change in Chicago and specializes in trauma, says the early days of #MeToo created a spike in trauma symptoms in her sexual assault survivors. Even if the media coverage created positive cultural momentum—famous trauma survivors in Hollywood were being believed again and again and again—it still hurt many survivors to think about their own assault in this new context: the recognition of prevalence, the sense that there was nowhere to turn where sexual assault and harassment wasn’t a reality. Some even spoke of the contrast of how their own stories were received years earlier.
Now, Barrett says, “I’ve had a lot of clients stirred up by this again. A lot of people are remembering those same kind of high school experiences. Out of the 12 families in my caseload right now, three kids came out to say: ‘that happened to me.’”
These are the kinds of assault stories, Barrett believes, that young people rarely used to tell their families about. There was the shame around mentioning something sexual to parents, the idea they were breaking family rules around drinking, the confusion about whether they were somehow to blame. But in these last few weeks, her clients handled it differently.
“They’re reckoning with the fact that they can tell, that maybe they should say something. And their parents are handling it very differently than our parents might have,” she says. “What Ford is doing is empowering. It’s especially empowering young women now. One of my young clients just had a similar incident happen at a party last Saturday night. When she told me about it this week, she added, ‘I don’t know that I would’ve brought it up before all this.’”
Still, between two-thirds and three-quarters of sexual assault survivors never come forward. Those between the ages of 12 and 34 run the highest risk of being assaulted and, according to the FBI’s crime index reports, only 2-10 percent of sexual assault allegations are false—a much lower percentage than for most other crimes.
Barrett also thinks the facts Democrats questioning Ford kept citing during the hearing—about the rarity of trauma victims coming forward and the reasons why—was a valuable teaching moment for the country. Lessons that, whatever happens with this Supreme Court nominee, will be hard to unlearn.
The morning after Ford testified, a stream of Democratic representatives, some of them visibly shaken by the news that the Republican majority would be pushing Kavanaugh through for a vote, went on record with their outrage. Florida congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief, said she would never have hired someone with multiple allegations of sexual assault against him to help enforce the laws of her community. “Why?” she asked, “would we let him enforce the law of the land?”
For Barrett, his potential confirmation is like a pit in her stomach. “If he gets approved, it’s going to be devastating to survivors, who will get thrown backward, thinking, ‘Here we go again, this is why we don’t tell.’”
Yet Ford has given voice to millions of assault survivors. And the rest of the country has learned a good deal more about why they don’t always come forward, what they live with after the attacks, and how even drunken teenagers going to prep schools in one of the country’s most powerful districts could be held accountable for what they’ve done—if not always by politicians, then maybe by a few of the millions of Americans who will have a hard time forgetting the credible, anxious, 51-year-old, professional woman who told her truth.
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