Ford v Kavanaugh: Why are Female Sexual Victims routinely disbelieved and vilified?

Battle lines have been predictably been drawn following the allegation by Christine Blasey Ford that she suffered a violent sexual assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh some 35 years ago and his emphatic denial that anything of the sort took place. Before either of the two protagonists have actually testified, large swathes of the American public have made it clear that they have fixed and unshakeable views as to how this particular dispute should play out.

At one level the question of where the truth lies has become largely irrelevant as the controversy has been subsumed beneath a tidal wave of conflicting political interests. In reality, a search for the truth should be of broad public concern because if an assault did occur it speaks to whether women can be confident that the alleged perpetrator will adjudicate fairly on issues such as abortion and other critical matters pertaining to gender rights.

At the other level, there have been premature leaps of judgment as people have taken a position as to whom to believe. The decision by Ford to come forward has evoked multiple instances of denunciation and ridicule which are all-too typical responses to complainants (usually women) in sexual assault and sexual harassment matters. Ford’s position has been attacked on the basis that:

  • She is not credible because she did not report it at the time (President Donald Trump)
  • She is not credible because she cannot remember the exact place and date
  • The complaint is part of “a radical left-wing conspiracy” hatched by Ford and political allies (President Trump again)
  • Even if true, the incident is no more than a harmless teenage escapade (Donald Trump Jr. and numerous others)

None of these arguments bears scrutiny. It is a well-documented fact that worldwide only a small minority of sexual assaults and harassment are reported. The Australian Human Rights Commission, for example, reports that only 17% of acts of workplace harassment result in reports or complaints to employers. And the recent nation-wide survey across Australian university campuses reveals that 94% of students who had been sexually harassed and 87% of those who had been sexually assaulted did not report it to university authorities.

A traumatised young woman is often not in a state of mind to record the exact details of where and when an attack occurred or even to consider that it may be important. Patti Davis, daughter of the late President Ronald Reagan has written a searing article in support of Ford, describing how she herself had been raped in an office setting some 40 years ago. Davis cannot recall time and location but has a vivid memory of the identity of her assailant and how the act occurred. She writes:

“Your memory snaps photos of details that will haunt you forever…it blocks out other parts of the story that don’t matter much.”

Ford Identified herself as the complainant in an act of courage knowing that she would be subjected to unfavourable publicity and immense criticism. In the event, the fallout for her has been much worse as she and her family have been targeted with a torrent of abuse as well as death-threats. Nothing remotely similar has assailed the other party, Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Lastly, the seriousness of the incident, if it did occur, is not diminished, because it allegedly happened when both parties were teenagers. Under western legal systems a 17 year-old actor bears full legal responsibility for what he or she does. For the victim the passing of time will not usually the erase the horror of having been sexually violated. The psychological consequences of rape and sexual assault are well researched and documented. They can be severe and long-lasting, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involving flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety; depression involving feelings of sadness and hopelessness and weight loss or gain; suicidal thoughts; dissociation resulting in not being able to work or study. These consequences are also common in cases of serious or repeated sexual harassment.

Despite the success of the #MeToo movement in high-profile cases, victims and survivors of sexual misconduct in our workplaces, universities and other institutions continue to bear a heavy burden after the event in dealing with the personal consequences and the many barriers that are thrown up should they want to get some redress. Laws that are in place and conventional training have had marginal benefits at best. Headway will be made only with significant cultural change across organisations – where everyone is included and no-one is fearful of coming forward to voice concern about themselves or others.

[Edit: On Monday 24 September, a second woman, Deborah Ramirez alleged that Kavanaugh had committed an act of gross indecency directed towards her, when they were both students at Yale in 1983-4. This is bound to strengthen the credibility of Ford and hopefully give her critics pause]

If you want to make sure that everyone in your organisation knows their rights and obligations regarding harassment – and then take the next step to build inclusive and high performing teams, ask us about the E-Challenge Inclusion Platform.

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