This past Thursday, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the nation, claiming that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school. Over the course of 15 minutes, she told us how she was sexually assaulted when she was young, how she kept this secret bottled up for more than three decades and how she was threatened and shamed once she came forward. During those 15 minutes, her voice cracked. She fought off tears. Retelling her trauma was so exhausting that she requested caffeine.
After Ford finished her opening statement, she was questioned. But she wasn’t questioned by the 11 male, majority-party members of Judiciary Committee. She had to go head-to-head with sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. To contrast, when Kavanaugh was questioned about his testimony, he talked almost exclusively to senators.
When women come forward, we seek to falsify
When Ford came forward, she was interrogated by a prosecutor, even though she was not on trial. When Kavanaugh was questioned, he was placed in front of colleagues, even though he is seeking a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.
It seems that we seek a higher threshold of evidence to believe a woman’s story than to believe a man’s story.
When women come forward, we seek to falsify: What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Does she have another motive for coming forward? It’s why Kavanaugh and his defenders were able to claim that Ford’s testimony is the product of a conspiracy between Democratic dark money and the media. Women’s testimony always needs to survive even the most inane outside explanations.
But when men push back, we look to corroborate: He’s a good guy–he’d never do something like that. We see this in Kavanaugh’s restructuring of his high school self as a pure, Catholic-school boy. He knows that if we see him as a good kid, we can’t see him as a rapist.
We also seek to change the threshold for punishment, but only to favor men. While Kavanaugh’s confirmation process is really just a job interview for a court seat, many have sought to increase the standard of guilt to a judicial level, “innocent until proven guilty.” Even though the employer (the Senate) could reject him on Ford’s accusation alone, Kavanaugh’s defenders are pushing a “reasonable doubt” mark to reach. And that’s not possible with a day of hearings and a one-week FBI investigation. Ford would need damning evidence and Kavanaugh would need a pathetic retort in order for us to convict him of a crime. But that’s not what the hearings are for.
The same goes on college campuses. The threshold of guilt in sexual assault cases used to be “preponderance of evidence,” because investigators don’t have the resources to reach a higher bar and the accused is not looking at criminal punishment. But Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has since raised the standard, seeing it as not granting enough rights to the accused. But when 91 percent of colleges report that there are zero rapes per year at their school and one in four women report being assaulted, the focus should lie with helping women.
How we react to the Kavanaugh hearings has consequences for survivors.
Helping women means listening to the stories they have been brave enough to share without the assumption that they have ulterior motives. It means not viewing Ford as a ploy of the Democratic Party, but rather as citizen of this country who drew the line at her perpetrator being nominated to the highest federal court in the United States. It means looking deeper at Kavanaugh’s volatile behavior during the hearings, not dismissing it as an unintended consequence of a high-stakes situation. It means understanding that Ford remained poised and cooperative under the same set of conditions after revealing her trauma to the world.
How we react to the Kavanaugh hearings has consequences for survivors. The survivors in your classes, on your floor, in your campus orgs. We cannot dismiss Ford’s experience because of the time that has elapsed since it occurred; rather, we have to support her in this retelling, no matter how late we may think it has come. Because if we don’t — if we cast doubt rather than extend compassion — we promote silence. We allow perpetrators to live without facing consequences. We allow them to go to Yale, to teach at Harvard, to be appointed to the Supreme Court. If a survivor has a story to tell, they need to know that we will listen, not set out to prove them wrong.
In any dispute, both parties’ claims should be weighed equally. But when it comes to sexual assault, we give men more chances to explain than women. We give them more benefit than doubt.