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Observer Editorial: Change the message

| Friday, October 5, 2018

Following Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s testimonies Thursday, Sept. 27, the nation has been captured by a conversation about sexual assault. Ford brought forward allegations in a letter to Senator Diane Feinstein detailing an experience in high school, where she recalls that at the age of 15, Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, then 17, pinned her to a bed and attacked her, attempting to remove her clothes.

These allegations have brought the backlash that accompanies coming forward about sexual assault to the forefront of the national consciousness. They have also revealed the lasting effects of a systematic, patriarchal perspective on the discourse surrounding sexual assault.

“It is a very scary time for young men in America,” President Donald Trump said Tuesday.

This is just one of many dismissive comments made about Christine Blasey Ford — and by extension, those that report sexual assaults of their own — this week. Many public figures have also claimed that Ford’s allegations are unsubstantiated because she could have come forward sooner and she had been drinking and might have mistaken her abuser.

Each of these arguments is misguided, and displays a lack of understanding of the circumstances that accompany reporting sexual assault.

“I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details. I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys. I tried to convince myself that because Brett did not rape me, I should be able to move on and just pretend that it had never happened,” Ford said in her opening statement Thursday.

There are a multitude of reasons a woman may not wish to come forward about her case of sexual assault. Ford touches on several of these reasons in her explanation for her decision to wait. Sharing what happened — both for her and for women around the world who are survivors of sexual assault — would mean being forced to face the same dismissive assumptions Ford is confronting.

As a society, we need to change the discussion about sexual assault. Much of the discourse on sexual assault focuses on what survivors of sexual assault could do to prevent their assault from occurring — in effect, victim-blaming. Instead of immediately seeking to dismiss and disparage claims, dialogue about sexual assault must focus on respect for survivors and a respect for truth, all the while recognizing the risks incurred by those who choose to come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct.

Ford testified that she has been forced to relocate twice after her allegations took over media coverage. She has been subjected to death threats, patronizing comments regarding her appearance and intense media scrutiny.

Ford maintained a calm and reserved demeanor at every turn throughout her testimony, but Kavanaugh took a very different approach. He was angry and defiant in refuting the accusations Ford brought against him.

While Kavanaugh drew some criticism, mostly from those already opposed to him, on his anger, many saw this reaction as a legitimate response to what they believe to be false accusations. Regardless of Kavanaugh’s innocence or guilt, this treatment of his testimony during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing deserves closer examination.

Anita Hill, who accused current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual assault during his confirmation process and testified like Ford, said this privilege would not have been extended to a female Supreme Court nominee because of gendered stereotypes about women being too emotional for positions of power. Kavanaugh, Hill said, “Was able to express a real anger, an aggression, as well as a lot of emotion … [no female nominee] would ever have the license to express [herself] in that way.”

The differing treatments of Ford and Kavanaugh embody the expectations American society has for men and women.

Women’s motives, whether it be the timing of their decision to come forward or the circumstances under which they were assaulted, are usually questioned — not on the basis of validity, but on the basis of the woman’s integrity. Their role is to be “the victim,” and not always a credible one.

Instead, many of the accusations involving sexual assaults focus instead on how the man could have never done this, because of who he was — a good kid, a star athlete, an honors student — or because this action is expected of young men, they’re just “boys being boys.” And when men are accused of sexual assault, they are permitted to be indignant and defiant in defense of their innocence, while accusers who show any sort of anger at what has been done to them do not get the same privilege.

For productive conversation on sexual assault to occur, this needs to change. These gendered expectations of dialogue not only harm women — and men — whose accusations are rarely believed and who oftentimes bear the burden of their own victimization. And because being a victim of sexual assault is seen as the role a woman fulfills, men often do not come forward due to fear leveling these accusations will be emasculating.

These roles and expectations are perpetrated by institutions across the country in the way they deal with sexual assault, and the tri-campus community is far from exempt from these institutional failures.

Statistically, most sexual assault happens to women ages 18 to 24. This is no different in the tri-campus community.

Sexual assault has been, and continues to be, a problem at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross. In an atmosphere where students are surrounded by their peers and engage in heavy drinking, inhibitions are lowered and misconduct is more readily accepted. However, this should not be seen as an excuse to allow for these occurrences.

The 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground” detailed experiences of students in the Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame community in relation to sexual assault and the reporting of said incidents. In particular, it explored the case of Lizzy Seeberg, a Saint Mary’s student who committed suicide in 2010 after reporting that she had been a survivor of assault by a Notre Dame football player. Seeberg’s family and friends claimed the administration was dismissive and vague in their handling of the case, ultimately failing to do all it could to help Seeberg.

Cases such as the Duke Lacrosse case in 2006, where people are falsely accused of rape, are extraordinarily rare; we cannot use that as an excuse to discount the approximately 95 percent of rape accusations that are true, according to the Journal of Forensic Psychology.

Thanks to the publicity surrounding Dr. Ford’s testimony, the conversation about sexual assault is being revived, and we on The Observer Editorial Board want this conversation to be framed in the right manner. In order to give survivors of sexual assault the respect they deserve, we must change the discourse. We must not patronize survivors by analyzing their behavior or how they could have avoided the assault, or by questioning their motive for coming forward. While not losing sight of the facts, we need to be mindful of the ways that we are complicit in perpetuating this negative rhetoric that dismisses claims before they are even examined.

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