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.
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.
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.