Opinion: Surviving Sexual Assault, Kavanaugh Hearings

CW: sexual assault, Kavanaugh hearings

In 1991, a young lawyer named Anita Hill courageously gave testimony to Congress on her experiences of the character and conduct of Clarence Thomas. The all-male panel grilled her in humiliating detail about the sexual harassment she experienced while clerking for Thomas. She was accused of being a pawn and a dupe, a naïve or vindictive participant in what Thomas called a “high-tech lynching.”

Twenty-eight years later, survivors, advocates, and allies watched in grim horror as the scene played out again. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave a gut-wrenching account of an attempted rape she experienced at the age of 15 by a wasted Brett Kavanaugh. She said, “I thought he might inadvertently kill me.” To those of us who hear the stories of survivors every day, she described an event that is outrageously common with painful clarity and candor. Many survivors and advocates who could bring themselves to listen to her testimony wept, as did those of us who could only bear to read her words. Later that afternoon, what we heard was the rage of a privileged white man, screaming in anger at the audacity of a woman who tried to deny him what he wanted and felt he was owed. In other words, we heard a typical rapist. His twisted, reddened face was all too familiar—as did were the angry faces of Grassley and Graham, who apologized profusely to him for the inconvenience of refuting Dr. Ford’s mild words.

It wasn’t surprising when the president doubled down: it was a shame that the poor man had been accused, women always accuse him of that too. He tried to publicly shame other women who told their own stories in a vain attempt to get a few Republican senators to listen. Those women did it for the money, he said.

Survivors and advocates are used to victim-blaming, denying, and mocking. We’re used to the numbness and rage — the fear that if we start crying or screaming we will never be able to stop. We’re used to looking for pain in the eyes of others, and checking in to offer solidarity in shared grief and strength. We’re used to vicarious trauma and retraumatization and trying to figure out how to care for ourselves, much less heal, while we’re being triggered over and over again. It never gets easier. But we get used to it.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, thousands of us told our stories to white men in power, hoping that the flood of our voices would make them hear us, that the blood we spilled in our stories would make them stop and recognize us. As usual, it didn’t work. But we tried. And we will do it again next time — and we know there will be a next time — because we know that our stories matter to the survivors who haven’t yet found their voices. We won’t let the narrative of unearned power and inherited privilege be written only by rich white men and their apologists.

If you are a survivor who hasn’t told their story yet, or did tell it to someone who twisted it around and hurt you with it, please know that there are people who do care and will believe you. What happened to you wasn’t your fault, and you didn’t do anything to deserve it. If it’s affecting you, it was that bad — please reach out. Advocates are trained to hold space for you to reveal as much or as little as you want. We can’t share anything you tell us without your permission. Reed’s Sexual Assault Prevention & Response advocates hold a weekly peer support group for survivors, and many people have found community and caring there. To get in touch with us, email sapradvocates@reed.edu or frostr@reed.edu. More info is on our webpage: reed.edu/sexual_assault. If you’d prefer to speak with someone off campus, the local agency is Call to Safety: (888) 235-5333.

If you haven’t been harmed by sexual violence, you know someone who has, and they need you now. Most survivors say that their friends, not advocates or counselors, are the ones who they rely on to get them through the bad times. Check in without being intrusive to see if they’re struggling with an extra burden right now, and offer to share some of it. The questions are easy: “How are you doing? What do you need? How can I support you? Would you like a hug?” If they don’t know what they want, tell them, “If you ever just want to talk, I can listen. I won’t give you advice or tell you how you ought to feel. And if you don’t want to talk, I can just hang out and keep you company if you’d like. I’ll be here for you.” It’s not hard to make all the difference in the world for one person. And if enough of us can do that, together — maybe even the next time — we will make the world different.


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