As of this week, the FBI has launched into what already promises to be a severely limited investigation into allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh has been credibly accused of acts ranging from attempted rape and exposing himself to a woman, to witnessing and not intervening to stop a gang rape.
Last week, Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the first woman to publicly accuse him, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee before the committee moved to hold a vote on Kavanaugh, pending an FBI investigation.
The women who have shared their allegations of being abused by Kavanaugh have risked it all to come forward, shouldering fierce attacks from the most powerful man in the country and ranking U.S. senators, and threats to their safety and their families’ safety, and the past few weeks have also been difficult for all women and survivors, with national rape hotlines reporting unprecedented 200 percent increases in calls.
Many of us see ourselves so starkly in the women who have come forward, so much so that after President Trump summarily dismissed Dr. Ford’s claims—saying that because she didn’t immediately report the alleged encounter to the police, she wasn’t credible—survivors took to social media to illustrate the failure of that logic by sharing their own stories under the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag.
As we await the findings of the FBI investigation and the final vote on Kavanaugh—who, frankly, should have withdrawn from consideration weeks ago—it seems worth offering this reminder: Dr. Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick, and all survivors who have shared their stories through #WhyIDidntReport don’t owe us anything.
It’s not the job of survivors to humanize themselves to people who are already determined not to see, respect, or accept them as human beings. It’s not the job of survivors to rehash their trauma in public spaces, or perform painstaking emotional labor to convince people who lack the fundamental empathy required to believe survivors that sexual assault is, in fact, real.
Certainly, the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag is important and powerful, offering a painful glimpse into the lived experiences of survivors, and pushing back on ignorant myths spread by the president of the United States himself, as well as a number of the most powerful men in the country who continue to stand by Kavanaugh. (You see, against all logic, common sense, and basic decency, the president and Republican senators are far too enamored with how Kavanaugh would certainly destroy women’s fundamental rights, and too afraid of the precedent that holding a powerful man accountable could set, to let Kavanaugh’s nomination go.)
But women and survivors have been through enough, over the past few weeks and throughout our lives. The pressure we face to sacrifice our comfort and our safety—as in the cases of the women accusing Kavanugh, all of whom were reluctant to reveal their identities and speak publicly—just to be respected as human beings, is a tremendous and unfair burden.
Survivors should always feel safe and free to talk about their experiences on their own terms and to their own benefit, but as we witnessed with Republican senators’ demand for Dr. Ford to testify before the Senate, the idea that survivors must come forward immediately and report at once to authorities, regardless of their feelings of safety, also speaks to a fundamental issue of privilege and entitlement.
Despite how the all-male roster of Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee had already made it clear, prior to last week’s testimonies, that they didn’t want to believe Dr. Ford—despite the Senate’s long record of humiliating and degrading women who testify, and certainly, despite how a vote for Kavanaugh had already been scheduled regardless of what the testimonies would reveal—even Republican senators like Susan Collins called on Ford to either testify or yield her credibility.
In response to survivors of sexual assault confronting and sharing their stories with Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, video footage has shown both men brush off the stories, refuse to even stop walking, and tersely tell the women that they should have gone to the police.
Frankly, it’s alarming how little elected officials seem to understand about the profound challenges and safety threats that survivors face, or at the very least, how little elected officials seem to care. No one is entitled to the stories and testimony of survivors—not police officers, not U.S. senators, not Twitter trolls—who must have the absolute right to decide whether to come forward, when to come forward, and who they want to share their stories with.
Today, anywhere from 65 to 84 percent of sexual assaults are unreported, and as we watch Dr. Ford and other women accusing Kavanaugh treated as criminal suspects rather than victims of trauma, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand why. Evident in the way Kavanaugh’s defenders portray him as a martyr—from Sen. John Cornyn visibly shedding tears as Kavanaugh testified, to President Trump calling the accountability Kavanaugh has faced “traumatic” for the judge—from the top down, our institutions are fundamentally built to protect men and discredit and subjugate women and victims of sex crimes.
Credibility is gendered. Who our leaders and institutions are able to identify and sympathize with is gendered; whose experience and comfort and reputation are prioritized is gendered. We do not live in a society that is conducive to listening to and respecting survivors.
That has to change.
But until it does, let’s all remind ourselves and each other that survivors owe us nothing, and certainly, that survivors who choose to keep their stories to themselves are also brave, and shouldn’t be erased. The stories of Ford, Ramirez, Swetnick, and all the survivors who shared through #WhyIDidntReport are just the tip of the iceberg, and we should believe and support survivors broadly, without requiring them to share intimate, painful anecdotes.
(image: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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