Who Gets to Talk about As­sault?

Ka­vanaugh Case Re­veals Power Im­bal­ances

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Heather Law­son Com­men­tary Writer

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.

Jude Khash­man | Il­lus­tra­tor

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