The nation was riveted Thursday to the hearing in which Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they both were teens, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked with what degree of certainty she believed Kavanaugh was the one who had assaulted her, Ford replied, “One-hundred percent.” Kavanaugh denied this and the allegations of two other women, and said the accusations were the product of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit.”
Whether you believe Ford or Kavanaugh, we think you will agree on this: Thursday was a terrible, wrenching, deeply frustrating day.
Especially if you were, at any point in your life, a victim of sexual assault.
RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, reported that the volume of calls to its national sexual assault hotline was up by 147 percent Thursday. David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post reported that many people wanted to talk about traumas they had endured years ago.
In homes across the nation, women of all ages — and men, too — spoke haltingly and painfully of experiences that were haunting them.
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said his family, like other American families, had been “discussing this and disagreeing and arguing about it. And two of my daughters have told me stories I had never heard before about things that happened to them in high school — and hadn’t told their parents. I don’t know if they told their friends. Certainly, they never reported it to the police.”
“They weren’t as serious as the allegations against Kavanaugh,” Wallace noted. “But the point is that there are teenage girls who don’t tell stories to a lot of people and then it comes up, and I don’t think we can disregard that. I don’t think we can disregard Christine Blasey Ford and the seriousness of this. I think that would be a big mistake.”
Wallace is right. It would be a grievous mistake.
In last week’s Sunday LNP, Karen Baker, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, wrote of how our culture discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward. When someone does, that “person is shamed and scrutinized; because of long-standing perceptions and power inequities, his or her story is met with denial. ... People who excuse sexual harassment, abuse and assault create a culture of fear and humiliation that loudly tells victims to expect humiliation or even additional harm if they speak out.”
So no wonder Ford began her testimony Thursday by admitting, “I am terrified.”
She’d already faced death threats; she and her family had to move out of their home; they had to hire security. Kavanaugh’s family, too, had received death threats and ugly insults.
The rancor over this matter threatened to tear our nation apart last week. The acrimony likely will continue this week, as an FBI investigation — set into motion Friday — into the allegations against Kavanaugh gets underway.
We think there are lessons to be learned from this heartrending cultural moment. Especially if you have adolescents, we’d encourage you to talk about the following — because the next generation has to do better than we have.
— When a woman told Sen. Lindsey Graham on Thursday that she’d been raped, he reportedly replied, “I’m so sorry. ... You needed to go to the cops.”
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, rape is the most underreported crime; 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. See above for the reasons why.
— Only between 2 and 10 percent of reported sexual assaults are false, that center states.
— Most assailants are known to their victims. Indeed, in eight of 10 cases of rape, “the victim knew the perpetrator,” that center states.
And that only adds to the reluctance to report. Fearing that one’s social circle will side with the assailant is a powerful deterrent to coming forward.
— Rapists generally aren’t the clearly terrifying monsters of our imagining. As Kristen Houser of PCAR wrote in a 2014 LNP op-ed, “People who commit sex offenses often appear to be nice, responsible, upstanding, loving and law-abiding members of the community.”
— We need to try to understand how trauma may affect the memory of someone who was victimized years ago. As Ford, a psychology professor, testified Thursday, an assault may be seared into a victim’s brain, even if she doesn’t remember exactly where or when it occurred.
When someone is experiencing a traumatic event, a neurotransmitter in the brain called norepinephrine allows the brain to “zero in on certain things and tune out others,” Charan Ranganath, director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California at Davis, explained to Time magazine last week.
The clinical psychologist told Time that it’s like turning up the contrast on your television. “If the contrast is low, you can see everything, even though some things are brighter than others. But if you crank up the contrast, what you’ll find is that some things are super bright, and everything else is kind of hard to see.”
As a result, he said, the brain tends to make “the things that are most salient stand out,” and so those details are stored clearly, while other, lesser details fade over time.
— If someone confides in us that he or she has been sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, we need to try to resist responding, “But he seems like such a nice guy.” Instead, we need to listen. Offer support. We shouldn’t pressure the person to report the assault; that’s a decision each individual needs to make. We need to encourage that person to contact the local rape crisis center (the number is below).
— A victim of sexual assault is not to blame if he or she has been drinking; an intoxicated person cannot consent to sex. Likewise, we shouldn’t blame a victim for wearing revealing clothing. Or walking outside alone at night. Or expressing romantic interest in the assailant. Interest doesn’t equal permission to rape. The assailant is to blame. Period.
— We need to teach our sons and daughters to be upstanders rather than passive bystanders. If they see someone in danger of being assaulted, they should act. Offer to walk that person home. Engage that person in conversation so it’s clear that person isn’t alone. Call 911 if the danger is imminent.
— And we cannot let this be just the burden of women.
We need to teach our sons to take care rather than take advantage. If a woman is visibly intoxicated and vulnerable to assault at a party, we ought to encourage our sons to call an Uber or a taxi and see her safely home. We need to teach our sons that it’s not OK to laugh at, or egg on, an assault. We should acknowledge that it’s difficult to go against one’s friends, but that it’s our expectation that they do so when, and if, the time comes. We need to make concern for others a family value.
In this way, we can ensure that something good comes out of the agonizing events of last week.
Sexual assault hotline: 717-392-7273