Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford, and breaking the silence

Brett Kavanaugh is now a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, but the silence of victims like the women who accused him of sexual assault is a trend that has existed longer than his lifelong term ever could.

On September 14, 2018, it was publicly reported that Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh had been anonymously accused of sexual misconduct occurring in the 1980s while he was in high school. Two days later, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward in a Washington Post article detailing her alleged assault, and later that month, two more women came forward.

On October 8, he became a Supreme Court Justice by a margin of two votes.

CBS News reported that more than 20 million people tuned in to watch Kavanaugh and Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, but sexual assault allegations in the public eye are not a new concept, especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

In fact, this case reminded many of one in 1991 when then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by law professor Anita Hill. This allegedly occurred during his time as her supervisor at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, beginning in 1981, although Hill did not come forward until September 12, 1991.

Thomas was confirmed.

The fact that both Ford and Hill did not share their stories until after a significant amount of time had passed brought into question the credibility of their claims. However, studies show that most victims of sexual misconduct do not report the offense.

“The underreporting of sexual violence has been documented by researchers extensively,” Nan Stein and Bruce Taylor write in their Education Week article It Can Happen Anywhere. “According to a 2017 report from the Justice Department, only 23% of sexual assaults are reported to police.”

Riverside English I students recently read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The book’s main character, Melinda, struggles with coming forward about being raped.

“She was afraid,” said Riverside freshman Le’ro Barclay, one of these students.

He says that the longer victims wait to share their stories, the fewer people will be inclined to believe them or give weight to their experience.

“They’ll be like, ‘That happened in the past,’” Barclay said.

Riverside counselor Deondra Jenkins says that feelings of shame, pressure, and fear of being seen as a liar are all things that can play a role in a woman’s decision to remain silent.

“Sexual assault is something that happens to every woman at least once in their life,” Jenkins said.

She calls them survivors, not victims.

“I’m all for empowering those who have been victimized,” she said.

Feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness can also impact a woman’s decision not to report. Women affected by sexual assault can experience learned helplessness, a psychological phenomenon theorized by Martin Seligman and Steven D. Meier, causing people who feel powerless to often just give up and accept their fate.

Jenkins and fellow Riverside counselor Catherine Sebring say that anyone who has been sexually assaulted, specifically as a teen, can experience an identity crisis. They lose their ability to trust because they feel so violated. They don’t know who to confide in.

“[Ford probably] tried to brush it off. She thought, ‘What if it was just an accident?’” freshman Yaquelline Vásquez López said. “She didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

Vásquez López, another student who read Speak, also said that teens could be hesitant to report an assault if underage drinking was involved.

Sebring says that for teen victims, the perpetrator can often be someone with whom they have a close relationship, such as a family member. School counselors have a duty to report to a parent or guardian any harm to a student that they are informed of. This could keep students from reporting sexual misconduct to them, Sebring says, especially if the assaulter is a family member.

“If there’s anything [students are] struggling with, they don’t have to hide,” Jenkins said she wants students to know. “My space is a safe space.”

#WhyIDidntReport and versions of this hashtag have become popular amid the Kavanaugh news.

“When I was 17, during the summer after I graduated high school, I was supposed to be on a date and ended up the guy took me to a house and five guys raped me. I am 72 years old now and this is the first time I have ever spoken up. I have been too ashamed to report,” one Twitter user, Barbara Chapnick, shared using the hashtag.

Silence is not limited to victims of these crimes. Don Palmerine was a 17-year old student at a Pittsburgh Catholic school when he both witnessed a rape and participated in a sexual assault at a party. 50 years later, he recently came forward to tell this story in a Washington Post essay.

“I think men should be part of the #MeToo movement. I think we should come forward and talk about what we’ve seen, what we’ve done – I think that should be part of it,” Palmerine said in a National Public Radio segment of All Things Considered.

In the essay, Palmerine wonders if these women, now his age, have shared their stories.

“They certainly wouldn’t have gone to the police – at the time, a subtle notion persisted that an assault was always the girl’s fault, that she shouldn’t have gotten herself into that position in the first place,” he writes. “They wouldn’t have told their parents, who would probably have scolded them.”

Even in today’s climate, people were hesitant to believe the women who came forward with allegations against Kavanaugh.

“It is a display of hysteria to rally around Ford – ignoring the inconsistencies and omissions in her tale – as the poster child of women’s rights,” writes criminal defense attorney Catherine Cherkasky for USA Today.

“I don’t know whether Ford, Ramirez and Swetnick are telling the truth or have other motives for coming forward,” writes Theresa Vargas for The Washington Post. “But I know this: Just because someone doesn’t talk about an incident for years doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. And too many people are now talking for us to pretend this is just about politics.”

*graphic by Allan Leon

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