Who Gets to Talk about Assault?
Kavanaugh Case Reveals Power Imbalances
content warning: sexual assault, sexual violence
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” This was the answer that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University, gave when asked about her strongest memory of her sexual assault. She was referring to the laughter of Brett Kavanaugh, recently confirmed US Supreme Court Justice, after he and his friend allegedly assaulted her at a party in 1982. Vehemently denied by Kavanaugh, this allegation, as well as several others, have been at the center of American debate in the past weeks.
During Kavanaugh’s nomination period, debates surrounding his innocence or guilt and his ability to sit on the highest court in the United States quickly arose. The way these debates are conducted is directly linked to the way we envision free speech. In Western societies, free speech is akin to a free market economy. The ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory claims that the best path to establishing “truth” is to flood the market with as many ideas as possible. According to this theory, the best, truest, or most worthy idea will prevail. Yet this presumes that the ‘market’ is free of barriers, that everyone is equally free to produce an idea and be heard. It is essential to remember that the words we accept as true or false, the voices we hear, and the opinions we believe, are all informed by the axes of privilege that we live within. Having said that, two issues that influenced the Kavanaugh discussions need to be acknowledged; first, the need to speak freely about sexual assault assumes that people have the ability to speak freely. Second, that those arguing in support of Dr. Ford often already have an unequal influence in these debates.
With the #Metoo movement, and the subsequent revelations of the sexual abuse powerful men have gotten away with for years, news related to sexual assault has been nearly impossible to avoid. People’s reactions to this news are influenced by their own perceptions and lived experiences. In this context, the pervasiveness of sexual assault seems to guarantee that many will relate to these stories on a more intimate and traumatic level as survivors. During Dr. Ford’s testimony, the rate of calls to the American National Sexual Assault Hotline spiked by 147 per cent. Interestingly, people supporting Dr. Ford often felt compelled to share their own experiences with sexual assault in order to gain credibility.
It is then crucial to ask: what is at stake for those challenging sexual abusers? Why must credibility be asserted through sharing personal trauma? How does this resonate with other victims and survivors?
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford made her allegation in a letter that was meant to be kept confidential. She credits her coming forward publically with the mounting pressure of reporters waiting outside her house and workplace. The first words of her testimony after introducing herself were “I am not here today because I want to be. I am terrified…” This reveals the injustice of the speech that surrounds sexual assault. The men who commit sexual abuse are systematically protected by the judicial system and the media whereas survivors are faced with constant harassment when they speak up about their assault. Survivors like Dr. Ford are forced to publicly share traumatic experiences for the world to dissect in order to explain why a man with multiple sexual assault and misconduct allegations should not get a lifetime Supreme Court position. Additionally, while Dr. Ford spoke calmly and recounted a coherent account of the assault, this same composure certainly cannot be ascribed to Kavanaugh during his testimony. However, his loss of temper was not detrimental to his statement because his credibility was never questioned the way Dr. Ford’s was. To my mind, this is proof of the imbalance that exists around voices relating to sexual assault.
We need to ensure that we do not trivialize or dismiss those who criticize Kavanaugh, especially because such criticism takes an important emotional toll on survivors. The FBI investigation into Kavanaugh produced no corroborative evidence about Dr. Ford’s account, however, it failed to interview her. Similarly, a number of witnesses who came forward saying they had information relevant to an allegation of sexual misconduct made by Deborah Ramirez against Kavanaugh were also not contacted by the FBI. This evidence suggests that the investigation was not conducted thoroughly, and that it was completely dismissive of survivors’ voices.
Susan Collins, one of the instrumental senators in confirming Brett Kavanaugh, said in an interview: “the one silver lining that I hope will come from this is that more women will press charges now when they are assaulted.” This incredibly insensitive statement trivializes the contribution of Dr. Ford as a woman who did step forward only to be met with apathy and disregard from the senators who voted ‘yes’ to the confirmation and from a vast part of the general public. It also ignores the power dynamics and privileges that surround sexual assault allegations. Dr. Ford is an educated white woman with a PHD. These systemic advantages often unfairly help survivors in making cases against their abusers. Dr. Ford is not a ‘better’ victim than someone else but it is important to recognize that, even with the privileges associated with her race and social class, her claim was still not enough to stop Kavanaugh’s nomination. In light of this outcome, we must wonder why women of colour, queer people, and those who face even more prejudice in the legal system would ever come forward. For Collins to suggest that this event will make all survivors more comfortable seeking justice is outrageous. What from these senate hearings and their result would compel anybody to put themselves in Dr. Ford’s position?
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Dr. Blasey Ford says, and I can hear the echoes of that laughter in my own memories. I can hear the laughter of a drunk high school boy having fun at the expense of a young girl echoing in a Mississippi amphitheatre where the president of the United States openly mocks this testimony. This kind of offensive behaviour strengthens already privileged voices, making them clearer and more confident about speaking on an issue they know nothing about. The freedom to debate such an emotionally charged and personal issue appears as a right for powerful men like the President and a privilege for survivors. The irony, of course, is that in most circumstances, people with firsthand knowledge of a topic would be given authority. In the case of sexual assault, however, we ascribe authority to the likely perpetrators, giving them the benefit of the doubt, while survivors face disbelief and watch their abusers be rewarded with job positions and public support.
The men who commit sexual abuse are systematically protected by the judicial system and the media whereas survivors are faced with constant harassment when they speak up about their assault.