Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifies
This past week was filled with testimonies. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary committee, recounting a sexual assault perpetrated by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his time in high school. Before this hearing, President Trump wondered about the legitimacy of her accusations, tweeting, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr Ford was as bad as she says charges would have been immediately filed with local law enforcement by either her or loving parents.”
Many survivors took to Twitter with the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport to share their own testimonies about why rape often goes unreported. These harrowing first-person accounts chronicle the shame and fear that often accompanies sexual assault and the victim-blaming that can arise when people do come forward.
The poignancy of the hashtag mirrors that of the #MeToo movement where those who had not experienced sexual assault or harassment were able to see how it affected those close to them, while those who had traumatizing experiences were exposed to a community of others who would be able to truly empathize.
Though these stories were impactful, the nature of the hashtag meant that survivors had to revisit experiences of deep trauma in a public forum with strangers criticizing and rehashing events that survivors may have never even spoken about to close friends. One woman who spoke to The New York Times, Lerato Chondoma, felt “exposed and overwhelmed” when it came to the response, even when it was positive.
The people sharing their stories in order to influence the public dialogue were unequivocally courageous. They told stories that were hard to tell because they felt that it was important in this moment. These stories helped call into question the notion that if an instance of sexual assault is not reported, then it did not happen. Telling these stories can be healing, lifting some of the secrecy and shame off of events where the victim should feel no shame.
But we can also question why, in this moment, we have to ask people to reopen and relitigate their experiences in sometimes traumatizing ways in order to legitimize the voices of those who have experienced sexual harassment.
When Ford first came forward, she did not want her identity to be revealed. She wrote a letter to her representative in California who passed it on to Senator Diane Feinstein. She also sat down with the Washington Post, who decided that they could not publish her account unless she went on the record.
She decided to hide her identity, fearful of how the public might lash out at her and her family. She likely remembered and considered the experience of Anita Hill who went through hours of excruciating testimony in front of an all-white, all-male judiciary committee, only to see the man who harassed her appointed to the highest court in the land while she was exposed to racist and sexist abuse for years after.
It took lots of reporting on her letter, reporters contacting her friends and coming to her house for Ford to decide that she wanted to go public: on her own terms. She said, in the Washington Post article that revealed her name, that she had begun to “feel like [her] civic responsibility [was] outweighing [her] anguish and terror about retaliation.”
One of Ford’s most memorable quotes from her testimony demonstrates how Kavanaugh’s assault continues to affect her. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said of the two boys who assaulted her. It was this emotional connection, even years later, that drew many to her testimony. The New York Times opinion columnist Frank Bruni stated, “She came across as both painfully vulnerable and unfathomably strong, which is to say that she came across as human. It was vital that we could be witness to that.”
It was only a few hours after Dr. Ford’s testimony that the accounts of sexual assault survivors may have once again changed the course of history. Activists and survivors Ana Maria Archilla and Maria Gallagher confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator just after he had given his full throated endorsement of Kavanaugh, saying “had he been nominated in another era, he would have likely received 90+ votes.”
Gallagher told Flake “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone and you’re telling all women they don’t matter...look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.” After being confronted with the experience of a survivor, or perhaps in fear of seeming callous when faced with this story, Flake appeared to change course, demanding an FBI investigation before the Senate votes to confirm Kavanaugh.
Archilla, who leads the Center for Popular Democracy action told The New York Times that “When the #MeToo movement broke out, I thought about saying it — but I wrote things and deleted it and eventually decided I can’t say, ‘Me too.’ But when Dr. Blasey did it, I forced myself to think about it again.”
Archilla, like Ford, was reluctant to speak out because she was well acquainted with the response that people give to allegations of sexual assault are brought up, but she chose to speak out because she thought her words might have an impact, and they did.
Once again, the power of survivors’ testimonies was able to shift public opinion enough to affect outcomes. Centering and amplifying the voice of survivors is the right path when dealing with issues of sexual assault.
However, why can a senator only be swayed to support the legitimacy of the claims of those who have been assaulted when personally confronted with the raw trauma of two survivors? Activists like Archilla realized wounds can move the public, but it is important that we think about what we are really asking of survivors, from those who testify to those who share their experience on Twitter.