Assassinating Survivors of Sexual Assault

By: Jennifer Keohane

A rancorous, partisan battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has rocked Washington, DC this week. Kavanaugh is defending himself against accusations of sexual assault, brought by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who argues that he assaulted her while they were students in high school. A charge of sexual assault is obviously serious, and deserves to be taken as such, especially since this case pivots into significant discussions about whether Kavanaugh had a drinking problem in high school and college.

I hope I don’t have to argue that whether or not Judge Kavanaugh committed sexual assault is relevant to service on the highest court in the United States. The challenge has been determining whether the sexual assault happened as Ford remembers and Kavanaugh vehemently denies. There are, after all, rarely corroborating witnesses to sexual assault. This, along with victim-blaming gender politics, tends to make women hesitant to come forward. Moreover, women internalize a deep sense of shame and often blame themselves for their own assault.

Republicans have dismissed last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing as a partisan delay tactic, and even Judge Kavanaugh himself has called the accusations “character assassination.” Last week, he said:

I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out. The vile threats of violence against my family will not drive me out. The last-minute character assassination will not succeed.

I’m not concerned with divining whether Kavanaugh is having his character assassinated. Certainly, sexual assault relates to character and reflects on whether he has the “temperament and honesty” to be a Supreme Court Justice. (See this excellent Atlantic essay on Kavanaugh’s partisanship.) The thing I want to call our attention to in this blog post is the extent to which women who accuse powerful men of sexual impropriety have their characters assassinated.

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Republicans are turning their guns on Dr. Ford in an attempt to destroy her credibility. They note that her story is uncorroborated and that it’s 35-years old. If it really happened, they argue, she would have come forward years ago and not waited until it was politically expedient to do so. The critics note that because there are some holes in her story, things that Dr. Ford doesn’t remember, it couldn’t possibly be true. Yet, it’s actually quite common for survivors of sexual assault to wait years before seeking help or talking about it, and memories fade in the interim. Republicans have pointed to every single inconsistency in her story, including things like whether she has claustrophobia, who paid for a polygraph test she took, and why she didn’t offer her testimony at home. She is, the conclusion seems to be, a mere pawn in the “Democratic smear machine.” The Right dismiss her claim as well, saying that because Kavanaugh didn’t succeed in raping her, it was just a matter of “prep school boys being prep school boys.” Indeed, as Matt Yglesias of Vox notes, the consensus among many Republicans is that Kavanaugh is guilty, but they don’t care.

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My point is not that an investigation into these inconsistencies should not occur, it’s just to force us to reckon with the fact that women who charge powerful men of sexual assault are often accused of lying, of being politically motivated, and of seeking monetary gains. In short, their credibility and character are impugned. No wonder more women don’t come forward. The famous smear against Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, that she was “a little nutty and a little slutty,” is a stark reminder that women’s voices are denigrated or silenced.

That the attacks against Dr. Ford have not been more virulent testifies to the credibility of her statement. Indeed, the way she was questioned during the hearing suggests that we have come some way since the Hill testimony. There seem to be more defenses of Kavanaugh than attacks on Ford in the media. It might also signify the power of the #MeToo movement to reshape the conversation about sexual assault away from assassinating survivors. Yet, I fear it may be awhile before this conversation translates into trusting women’s experiences and voices, a change that cannot come too soon.

4 thoughts on “Assassinating Survivors of Sexual Assault

  1. The attacks against Dr. Ford in the more “mainstream” conservative media have not been as virulent as the conservative media on the next (lower) rung — places like BlabberBuzz, OfftheWire, Trump Train News, Daily Signal, Townhall, etc. Not only are the attacks more virulent (Ford lied about being a psychologist, Ford’s yearbook shows all the partying and sex she participated in, Ford’s grandfather was a CIA agent and her father a CIA banker, etc.), but the comments are really, really ugly.

    Beyond that, even in the more mainstream media, I have been struck how there is this narrative that Dr. Ford may very well have been attacked, but she is confused about her attacker. Not only does that type of charge strain credulity, it also suggests that women’s brains don’t have the same type of memory capacity as men’s, especially those brains of men who drink. There have been numerous witnesses who have stated that Kavanaugh was a heavy drinker, and a mean, sloppy drunk. Isn’t is just as likely that he attacked Ford and is is HE, NOT HER, whose memory is confused?

    Three years after Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to SCOTUS, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson made a definitive case in their book, Strange Justice, that Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Thomas had merit, and that there were other women Thomas had harassed. While it won’t take three years, I’m afraid that AFTER Kavanaugh is on SCOTUS, other books (perhaps by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow) will make a definitive case that a second member of the Supreme Court is serving despite their humiliating treatment of women.


  2. Thanks for your great comment! And thanks for reading! I definitely agree that there is a dangerous precedent from a gender perspective set by the argument that Dr. Ford is just confused about who her attacker was.


  3. Pingback: The Grinch Who Assassinated Christmas – Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab

  4. Nicholas Hays

    The issue with Blasey Ford’s testimony was the baselessness of her claims ( In the United States, you must be proven guilty, not proven innocent, so of course people scrutinize a lot of her actions because you should never implicitly trust someone, especially when they’re making claims that close to nomination. Nobody cared who she was until she put down the claim. Then the media swarmed her for her story and when she made things not add up in any way, they left her, another victim of the media. Who knows if something happened to her? Well, the mainstream media doesn’t care if it isn’t a Republican. Look at Ralph Northam for example, a democrat who wore blackface but is still the governor of Virginia, like the matter was brushed under the rug ( It’s because of the cult-like groupthink of the democratic party, as long as you’re one of us you can’t do much wrong, and if you do ah well, whatever, like when Clinton called blacks ‘Superpredators’ ( but was still somehow able to run for president when she then went on to say Donald Trump was a bad person for saying something in his past, and both apologized, the double standard is real.

    This has nothing to do with blaming the ‘victim’ and everything to do with defending the accused and attacking the accusers basis and credibility. Woman are encouraged to charge powerful men, ESPECIALLY with the metoo movement, with less consequences for doing so than ever, and are used sometimes by the media as pawns in their cruel and stupid game. But you must PROVE the guilt of someone, even if that someone was running for supreme court justice– it is ON THE ACCUSER, lest the United States forget the redeeming quality of its flawed justice system.

    I made this late, and a year later really, but man it just gives a knot in my stomach, I mean maybe using Bill Clinton’s case and the silencing of his accusers, ( and his willing partner would have been relevant because that was proven, but these claims against Kavanaugh were without any evidence whatsoever and at a point where it was still up in the air. Almost no relevance with the topic the article outlined. Perhaps the Clarence Thomas part was a bit more according to the topic, but the rest of it? That Vox article? Poorly used. Of course I have bias, but looking into the sources and seeing what you could have used otherwise, even going further into the Clarence Thomas claims and what claims were brought up and why people thought what they thought with the evidence at the time– not using any of that means it proves nothing, because maybe people had and have a bias, or maybe they’re looking at how the justice system is meant to be run and going off of that.

    I understand the basis, no doubt, and it is an incredibly interesting basis, one which I think you could look into and find in cases, especially ones that are proven beyond a reasonable doubt and still denied by some who have bias against women, but this case? This case actually even threatened more than just Ford, but every man and woman who never wanted to have baseless claims brought up against them concerning sexual assault. There’s so much to unpack with this case, and I think I’ll leave it there, just needed to write this.


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