Competing testimony by Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford at Thursday’s Senate judiciary hearing captivated the country. After an assurance that Blasey Ford is certain the judge committed her assault, and an unequivocal denial of wrongdoing by Kavanaugh, Americans were left to pick apart the details of their respective accounts and the credibility of their characters.
While senators may have opted to avoid attacks on Blasey Ford’s character, Kavanaugh drew heavily on this criterion in his own testimony. His most vehement defense was that as a judge, a mentor, and a father, he could not be a perpetrator of sexual assault. In his opinion, and that of others, these roles could not coexist in an individual’s life.
Perpetrators of sexual assault are not caricatures, however. If we have learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it is that average men, even beloved men—with wives, children, and female friends—commit sexual violence. They have long done so with impunity. And the perception of their character by other men is not relevant.
Women sense the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault to a degree I have realized men still cannot fathom. If a woman has not experienced sexual assault herself, she has a friend who has. Experiences of sexual violence among queer and non-binary people are equally prevalent, but even more marginalized. Most straight cis men, on the other hand, can go through their lives without being confronted with this difficult truth. This became evident on the day Blasey Ford shared her experience with the Senate and the nation. Women I know believed and identified with Blasey Ford’s testimony. Many of our male peers and senators had a different perspective however, clinging desperately to Kavanaugh’s identity as a Yale alumnus, a Christian, and a public servant.
As someone who was sexually assaulted in high school, it has been especially easy to imagine myself in the position of Blasey Ford over the past few days. I wonder how I would describe what happened to me, if I were in her shoes. How would I prove that I did not consent to the sexual advances of a boy I had considered a friend? What conclusions would be drawn about my character when I admit I had been intoxicated that night? How could I explain why I did not talk about the experience until almost two years later? The fact is I would struggle greatly to answer these questions. But, I do not believe this should invalidate my experience.
Instead, I interpret these challenges as a sign that the current system for investigating cases of sexual violence is unfit to solve the issues this crime presents. Regardless of what special prosecutor was hired, we witnessed in the Senate’s hearing that the burden of proof continues to be placed on victims, while accused perpetrators are given the chance to freely provide excuses and denials. This system in which victims and perpetrators are pitted against one another creates the false perception that their testimony is of equal value and fails to do justice.
As I watched Kavanaugh and various senators speak to the judge’s upstanding character, I could not help but to feel like I and other Americans were being manipulated. Instead of honing in on Kavanaugh’s alleged actions, we were led to employ a standard of judgment that is ultimately baseless.
Amidst my speculating about what I would do if I found myself in a situation like this, I paused to ask myself what others could do to relieve this burden, that I and so many women have been forced to carry alone. How can we as a society confront the prevalence of sexual violence? How can we recognize the complexities survivors face and work to support them both personally and within the criminal justice system?
What I ultimately realized, is that the women I know have already thought deeply about these questions, because they’ve had to. Only men have had the privilege to evade this reality, but I hope they can begin to open their eyes.
It has been nearly thirty years since Anita Hill sat in front of the Senate to reveal what she knew about Clarence Thomas’s character. Many of those senators have not changed, making me question, what has? The #MeToo movement may feel monumental, but let us not forget that the year after Hill’s testimony was named the ‘Year of the Woman.’ Have women come as far as we think?
Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill, and countless other women have spoken out about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, not for their own vindication but for a greater sense of social justice. They have come forward, not just to speak their truths, but in hope that others will pay attention. To make strides against sexual violence, the work of raising awareness cannot only fall on women. We have spoken. Now, we are asking men to listen.