The sexual assault hearing and appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court early this month marked a pivotal moment for how the United States views and treats sexual assault and sexual assault survivors.
President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to fill the ninth seat on the Supreme Court in July of this year. Shortly afterward, Palo Alto University psychology professor Christine Forward came forward, accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault while the two were in high school. Two other women also came forward accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.
The ensuing Senate investigation into these allegations before his appointment to the Supreme Court exemplified everything that is wrong with the treatment of sexual assault and sexual assault survivors according to Pacific University Campus Wellness Coordinator Kathleen Converse. Campus Wellness helps victims of sexual assault and relationship violence and invents new programing and events to prevent sexual assault, promote healthy relationships and support survivors.
Following the hearing and a five-day FBI investigation into the allegations, Senators voted Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court on Oct. 6.
“This is a perfect case study of everything that is challenging with sexual assault,” Converse said. “This is the least reported crime—on our campus 14 percent of people come forward. It’s less than ten percent nationally—and when we look at why, it’s fear of not being believed and that happened to Dr. Ford. It’s fear of backlash and retaliation, which we saw happen, with the death threats and the way she was talked about and mocked.”
Converse pointed out the significance of the role of alcohol and its double standard for men and women, which came up in the Kavanaugh case as it does in so many cases of sexual assault.
“Alcohol is an excuse for the man to not have to be responsible for actions and behaviors—let me be really clear that alcohol is not an excuse to sexually assault people—and then it’s used as an excuse to blame the women,” Converse said. “If you have an anything to drink for some reason, the women’s blame goes up and the man’s blame goes down, which is a problematic double standard.”
As the number one date rape drug, alcohol is involved in 75 to 90 percent of sexual assaults Converse said.
She also explained how memory works in strange ways in instances of trauma and how that often plays out in cases of sexual assault, as it did with Ford.
“We saw people picking her apart for not remembering things. What we know about the neurology of trauma is that when someone experiences a traumatic event, their amygdala is triggered and shuts off their ability to communicate with their prefrontal cortex, which is how we remember things in a linear fashion,” Converse said. “So, people who experience trauma cannot remember things in a linear fashion. Someone’s story getting confused and looking like a lie is often a trauma response.”
Beyond the sexual assault, other forms of sexism on display at the hearing stood out to Converse. The objectification of Ford by Senator Hatch, who said he believed her because she was “attractive” and “pleasing” was one primary example of this sexism.
Uneven gender dynamics were also apparent in the language of Ford and Kavanaugh during their testimonies.
“She apologized 5,000 times, ‘sorry I wish I could be more helpful, sorry let me double check that. Sorry I wish I could read faster.’ Which is a gendered thing with women, trying to please and apologizing for things they don’t need to be apologizing for,” Converse said. “Meanwhile Kavanaugh, who did need to apologize, said ‘sorry’ zero times in his statement and acted like a petulant man child. If any woman had conducted herself that way, she would be definitely not be on the supreme court.”
Despite all of the perpetuated sexual assault misconceptions and all of the sexism of the hearing, there were positives that came out of it.
“We saw an outpouring of support for Dr. Ford and for survivors. On our campus, we saw students come together at a smaller level,” Converse said. “The Believe Survivors Rally that students planned, I thought that was a beautiful example of collaboration, of people coming together from different groups all over campus to stand together in support of belief of survivors.”
According to Converse, the attitudes of Kavanaugh, Trump and many senators are emblematic of a backlash against progressive movements that have begun in recent years to hold sexual assailants responsible.
“We are at a really interesting historical moment with sexual assault. What we are seeing right now is backlash to a lot of change,” Converse said. “Starting around 2010, we had rapid fire legislation that started to make it easier for perpetrators to be held accountable, to make more people share their stories.”
As the MeToo movement began and for the first-time men in prominent positions of power, like film producer Harvey Weinstein, were held accountable for sexual assault, other men in positions of power felt threatened.
“This backlash is coming from a group of people who began their lives with a set of expectations and in their lifetime, those expectations have changed,” Converse said.
Though the backlash has been intense, especially as it comes from people in such high positions of power, the President, Senators and now a Supreme Court Justice, Converse believes that overall, the way this country treats sexual assault survivors is improving. Right now, she said, is the critical moment for a response to that backlash.
“Overall, we are in an upward trajectory. But there is intense backlash,” she said. “We are at a really pivotal moment here. From here, do we get pushed back by the backlash and undo the progress that has been made or do we rise of up in surge of activism and push it further than it was before?”
Converse is confident that the response to this backlash will be positive, powerful and led by students.
“I do have a tremendous amount of hope in our student body and this generation to create change and to create a space where sexual assault is unacceptable and where survivors are believed and supported,” she said.
Times like this, when stories of sexual assault are everywhere in the news and on social media, can be difficult for sexual assault survivors Converse said. She wants those survivors to know that there are people who will believe and support them. Converse and the Peer Advocates at Campus Wellness, as well as the counselors at the Student Counseling Center are all confidential resources for students to talk to about sexual assault.