A Question Of Faith

When accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh made headlines earlier this year, victim support networks were inundated with calls. Triggering painful memories of past traumas in survivors of assault, hotlines such as the The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in the United States saw an astounding 388 percent increase in traffic over the course of the next three days. Astonishingly, the Friday after the hearing was the busiest in the organisation’s entire 24-year history. Then there were the protests.


When droves of activists headed to Washington to protest his nomination, 300 protesters including celebrities such as Amy Schumer and Emily Ratajkowski, were arrested after demonstrations became heated. Still, there was no stopping the election of Brett Kavanaugh. While President Donald Trump publicly mocked Kavanaugh’s accuser, an FBI report declared the then only nominated Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States as ‘innocent.’ Igniting a fury of emotion on both left and right, the Kavanaugh case above all else, has raised the pivotal question — what does it take to believed?

If the path to Brett Kavanaugh’s election into the Supreme Court is anything to go by, testimony alone is not enough for survivors to be believed. The circumstances surrounding Dr Blasey Ford’s case, the psychology professor in California who first accused Kavanaugh of physically and sexually assaulting her while in high school, are both controversial and unusual — to say the least. Following Trump’s announcement that he would be nominating Kavanaugh into the Supreme Court mid this year, Ford had quietly sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although the letter was not released publicly at first (at Ford’s request), Fenstein later sent the letter to the FBI, following several rumours about its existence being leaked by Democratic senators. Despite making its way into Kavanaugh’s background check file, a criminal investigation was never launched by the Bureau, due to the statute of limitations surrounding the allegations expiring years ago.

However, the allegations eventually made their way to the public, after the letter was published by The New Yorker. The story, which did not include Ford’s name, detailed the alleged assault, which is said to have taken place in the eighties. Kavanaugh, who at the time was a high-school student, was accused of encountering the anonymous woman at a local party, holding her down and forcing himself onto her. The letter also alleged that an intoxicated Kavanaugh and a classmate of his, turned up the music, which was playing in the room to muffle her protests, whilst Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand. In spite of claiming she was able to free herself, Ford described the incident as being a source of ongoing distress for her, so much so she had to seek out psychological treatment as a result of it. Come September, Ford would decide to go public in an interview with The Washington Post, while Kavanaugh would continue to vehemently deny all accusations against him.

But Ford wouldn’t be the first and only woman to come forward with allegations against the nominated Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Deborah Ramirez, a woman who attended Yale with the nominee, would soon publicly accuse Kavanaugh of indecent behaviour. In a story published by The New Yorker, Ramirez says he exposed himself to her at a dorm party, thrusting his crotch in her face, in an incident which is said to have occurred sometime between the 1983 – 1984 academic year. Not long after, Attorney Michael Avenatti, who famously represents porn star Stormy Daniels in her hush-money lawsuit against Trump, tweets that he is representing another woman with “information” on Kavanaugh. In a sworn statement, Julie Swetnick, the third woman to claim to have witnessed Kavanaugh behave inappropriately, alleges to have witnessed him drinking in excess and partaking in “abusive behaviour” towards teenage girls at parties. “I have a firm recollection of seeing boys lined up outside rooms at many of these parties waiting for their ‘turn’ with a girl inside the room. These boys included Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh,” Swetnick said in a public statement.

Following the string of allegations, it’s reported that the Senate leadership staff questioned Kavanaugh about two further allegations. Although one was recanted immediately, the other which was submitted as an anonymous letter, says Kavanaugh assaulted a woman while under the influence of alcohol in 1998. But events would soon reach boiling point, shortly before September 27 when both Kavanaugh and Ford were scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. While thousands would march Washington’s streets in support of Ford, Kavanaugh supporters expressed their suspicions surrounding the timing of the allegations. As 75 female supporters of Kavanaugh held a press conference to clear his name, many of which were lifelong friends and work colleagues, questions about the validity of Ford’s claims were made. Believing her agenda was politically motivated, those supporting Kavanaugh questioned the timing of the allegations. In an interview with FOX talk show host and conservative political commentator Sean Hannity, Trump showed unwavering support for Kavanaugh. “He’s an outstanding person, and frankly, Sean, to see what’s going is very, very sad. You say, why didn’t somebody call the FBI 36 years ago? You could also say, when did this all happen? What’s going on? To take a man like this and besmirch [his name],” announced the President.

Victims’ accounts are often scrutinised to the point of exhaustion. In high-profile cases, victims are often labeled opportunists, blamed for their own victimisation, and punished for coming forward.

After the President tweeted similar sentiments questioning why Ford did not come forwards sooner, a new hasthtag emerged. In lieu of the #MeToo movement, the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag saw thousands of tweets from sexual assault survivors emerge within days of the President’s initial post. Quickly becoming the top trending conversation starter on Twitter in the United States just a day after President Donald Trump’s initial tweet, the #WhyIDidntReport brought to light the various reasons why survivors are reluctant to share their stories. While some spoke of feelings of powerlessness, others expressed their fear of not being believed and the inexcusable reactions from those they confided in as being pertinent to their secrecy. Moreover, others spoke of a failure of law enforcement to investigate crime in addition to debilitating psychological conditions as a result of the experience. ‘I was 17,’ tweeted Abigail Hauslohner, a reporter the Washington Post.

‘Raped by a friend. I was confused. In denial. Afraid. His parents were richer & better connected than my parents. He was a “good” student. Ppl liked him. The only friend I told – responded w: “He wld never do that.” I didn’t think anyone would help me.’ DeRay Mckesson, an American civil rights activist, also tweeted of his experience: ‘He was the nephew of my father’s girlfriend at the time & was older & stronger than me. It started when I was 7 & I thought he’d hurt me more & that nobody would believe me. It took 4 years to break the silence. He was abusing other kids too, I later found out.’

Evidently, research both here in New Zealand and abroad suggests many sexual assault survivors find it difficult to come forward with their stories to authorities. According to HELP, an Auckland based organisation which offers help to sexual assault survivors, just ten out of one hundred sexual assault crimes (criminal acts that are sexual in nature, varying from unwanted touching to rape) are reported. Only three of which will go to court, while just one of these three are likely to receive a conviction. Despite such a low number of convictions, figures published by HELP indicate sexual assault is prevalent within New Zealand. One out of three girls are believed to be sexually abused by the time they turn sixteen and one in seven boys are said to be sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood. A further one in five New Zealand women are thought to experience a serious sexual assault and for some women, this unfortunately happens more than once. However, because of their very nature, incidences of sexual assault are statistically difficult to report on. As supporters of Ford argue, many men and women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment are reluctant to come forward.

Every year in the United States, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports receiving 12,000 allegations of sexual harassment (a more broader term used to define unwanted sexual attention that can include rape but is not necessarily limited to physical contact — for example, this can also include sexual coercion). Women were found to account for approximately 83 percent of complainants. However, experts believe this figure does not reveal the full extent of the situation. A 2016 study by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found approximately three out of four people experiencing harassment never report this to an authority figure. Instead, they are more likely to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the incident or attempt to ignore, forget or endure the behaviour. As Beverly Engel, a US psychotherapist and author writes, there are many reasons why female survivors do not come forward. One particularly notable reason, is shame. “This sense of shame often causes victims to blame themselves for the sexual misconduct of their perpetrator…” explains Engel. “Victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault in adulthood or sexual abuse in childhood tend to feel shame, because as human beings, we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimisation of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we should have been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless.“ Women ‘in particular’, says Engel, feel shame because ‘they are often blamed for being sexually assaulted.’

“Even today, women are accused of causing their own victimisation with comments like, ‘What did she expect when she dresses like she does?’ and “She shouldn’t have had so much to drink.’” The tendency of victims to blame themselves, coupled with shame can also lead women to downplay their experience in order to cope with it. As many of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Wenstein’s survivors have reported, fear of the repercussions is another obstacle women face when reporting harassment and assault. Whether this comes down to a fear of losing their job, jeopardising their career or a fear of their physical safety, Engel says this is true across the board — whether the woman in question is a young women at her first job or a career women attempting to break through the glass ceiling.

“Many [survivors] don’t disclose, because they fear they won’t be believed, and until very recently, that has primarily been the case. The fact that sexual misconduct is the most under-reported crime is due to a common belief that women make up these stories for attention or to get back at a man who rejected them. Victims’ accounts are often scrutinised to the point of exhaustion. In high-profile cases, victims are often labeled opportunists, blamed for their own victimisation, and punished for coming forward.” Evidently, survivors who have faced harassment and assault at the hands of high profile men live in fear of what the perpetrator’s position of power could do to them should they ever come forward. As was the case with Harvey Weinstein, there were reports the film mogul enlisted the help of private security agencies staffed with those “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and government intelligence units” to obtain information on women and journalists who were trying to expose the allegations against him.

As with the aftermath of any traumatic incident, research also shows sexual assault and harassment can cause a number of other mental health problems, including low self-esteem and helplessness. Evidently, studies suggest women who are suffering from depression and low self esteem find it difficult to report their experience. This is what is known as ‘learned helplessness.’ A concept first developed by psychologist Martin Seligman and Steven D. Meier, learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which people feel like they have no control over their lives and as a result, simply give up and accept their fate. This specifically occurs when a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness as a result of a traumatic event or continual failure to succeed. It is considered to be one of the underlying causes of depression and can occur following sexual assault. “Women feel it is useless to come forward, because they have seen the way others have been treated. They feel it is hopeless, because they won’t be believed, and their reputations will be tainted, if not ruined. Women who have already been sexually assaulted or harassed feel especially helpless, since the chances are extremely high that they did not receive the justice they so desperately needed. These fears can cause women to think there is nowhere to turn, to feel trapped and even hopeless.” Finally, Engel lists dissociation as another reason women are reluctant to come forward. Needless to say, for survivors like those of Bill Cosby’s who were allegedly drugged, reporting assault or harassment becomes increasingly difficult when memories are impaired due to the use of substances.

Closer to home, one New Zealand politician has made it her mission this year to speak out against sex crimes and why they so often go unreported. That woman is Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. Mid 2018, the politician made headlines when she made public that she was sexually abused as a child. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Davidson says that despite sexual abuse and assault being so prevalent within society, it’s still a subject which is rarely talked about. “We all know someone who’s been affected by it – but we may not know who they are. Because it’s so incredibly difficult to talk about it. Even for me, a politician, a party co-leader, someone with a lot of privileges and confidence, it took being approached for an interview to realise I could tell my story. And I had to,” explains the Green Party member. “Because it’s the silence and the shame that allows sexual abuse to continue. It’s the fear of what might happen when you tell someone. I felt protective of my family, and didn’t want to upset them.” Davidson, who came forward with her story publicly in June this year, did so with the hopes of inspiring others to do the same. “It [sexual assault] sections us off as individuals and we need to come together and tell the stories that will help other people speak up and tell someone.”

Of course, even when cases are reported, survivors find they are not always believed. As with many cases of its kind, with little physical evidence presented, not everyone has been willing to believe Ford and her allies’ claims. While the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman declared the FBI’s investigation had “found no hint of misconduct”, Senate Democrats declared the investigation “incomplete”, suggesting the White House was responsible for preventing the FBI from completing a thorough investigation. Those supporting Ford’s claims, were quick the highlight the brevity of the FBI’s investigation, which was completed within five days, with senators allowed just an hour to review its contents. Supporters of Ford also complained the list of witnesses interviewed was not comprehensive, as it only included interviews with nine sources (neither of which were Kavanaugh or Ford themselves). However, those backing Kavanaugh still remain adamant the evidence presented was enough to clear his name. The evidence they claim, is in examples such as Leland Keyser, a high school friend of Ford’s who told the FBI she had no knowledge of the party with which Ford said she attended or of the accused. Moreover, others point towards evidence which they suggest shows Ford “changing her story.” Highlighting instances where Ford described differing numbers at the party where the incident took place, as well as differing accounts of what the setting looked like, they believe her story is inconsistent.

At a political rally early in October, President Donald Trump again questioned Ford’s memory as he took the stage to perform his impression of her: “I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighbourhood was it?” he proclaimed to the audience. “I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it – I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.” Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to prove a case with limited physical evidence available and only witness testimony available. However, as memory experts are quick to point out, both Kavanaugh’s and Ford’s memories of the alleged party where the event took place are unreliable. Human memory, by its very nature, is prone to error. Speaking to news site Vox, Steven Frenda, a psychologist who researches false memory at Cal State Los Angeles, describes how memory changes over time. “Even people who have otherwise extraordinary memory abilities do not appear to be completely immune to the effects of suggestion,” adding that he “does not think that we should discard someone’s entire account because we find evidence of some distortion or inconsistency.”
In the same way it is difficult to separate memory from fiction, it’s unlikely the public will ever know the full contents of the FBI report, which was never publicly revealed. But for Ford’s supporters, this fact is redundant. Focussing on details such as memory, take away from the issue at hand — that sexual assault should be taken seriously. Around the time the Senate’s dismissed sexual assault claims against Kavanugh and confirmed his subsequent confirmation, numerous celebrities and public figures came forward in support of Ford. Ellen DeGeneres, one such supporter, tweeted: “This tweet is for Dr. Ford. You put yourself through so much and I want you to know it wasn’t in vain. You started a movement and we’ll see it through. If they won’t listen to our voices, then they’ll listen to our vote.” Others, like Lady Gaga, a self-proclaimed victim of sexual assault herself, went into more detail as to why victims need to be believed, speaking with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, “If someone is assaulted or experiences trauma, there is science and scientific proof, it’s biology, that people change. The brain changes. And literally what it does is it takes the trauma and it puts it in a box, and it files it away and shuts it so that we can survive the pain,” explained Gaga.

“It also does a lot of other things, it can cause body pains, baseline elevations in anxiety, it can cause complete avoidance of wanting to even remember or think about what happened to you,” continued the musician. “But what I believe that I have seen is that when this woman saw that Judge Kavanaugh was going to be possibly put in the highest position of power in the judicial system of this country, she was triggered. And that box opened. And when that box opened, she was brave enough to share it with the world to protect this country.” In spite of the influx of support from celebrities and activists alike, not everyone on the internet was so quick to show their support. In response to the #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport hashtags, came the new male-oriented version: the #HimToo hashtag. Founded on the belief the #MeToo movement is leading to an epidemic of false sexual harassment and assault claims against men, #HimToo seeks to highlight the injustices men face because of these claims. With President Trump describing 2018 as “a very scary time for young men in America” and his son, Donald Trump Jr. announcing he is “more worried about his three sons than his two daughters,” the hashtag surged in popularity after the Kavanaugh case.

“For too long, survivors have felt disbelieved and I think they can get a lot of strength from hearing others’ stories and the support that these women are receiving.”

During the midst of the Kavanaugh case, one particular tweet, posted by Laura Loomer, a right wing writer and advocate, garnered widespread attention. At the time of writing, the tweet now has over 21 thousand likes. It reads: ’If you have a son, make sure you buy him a note pad, a body camera, & a recording device. Get him a battery pack too so he can always protect himself with video evidence of every single encounter he has with a woman. Men aren’t safe in America anymore. There is a war on men.’

But while #Himtoo activists like Loomer are concerned that false sexual assault allegations against men are becoming the norm, those on the other side of the argument suggest the movement does more harm than good. By focussing on false allegations, it has been suggested society ignores the real plight of male survivors. Statistically, men are more likely to experience sexual assault and harassment themselves than fall victim to false allegations. Additionally, research does also indicate the number of males falsely accused of sex crimes is relatively low. In a recently updated 2007 research paper by charity organisation End Violence Against Women International, researchers analysed data on false claims across numerous developed nations. They found on average, between two to eight percent of sexual assault claims are false (although the study wisely notes that ‘in reality, no one knows – and in fact, no one can possibly know – exactly how many sexual assault reports are false.’) In comparison, New Zealand organisation RPE (Rape Prevention Education) notes that large scale international studies on sexual violence against males suggest approximately one in seven boys will experience sexual assault. Speaking to M2woman, Debbi Tohill, Executive Director of RPE, says that men do not feel comfortable coming forward with the stories for many of the same reasons women do. “For men, the issues can be the same – feeling they won’t be believed or at blame. Also, societal views and old notions that men are always up for sex can impact on them reporting sexual violence, particularly if they have been sexually abused by someone in a more powerful position such as a teacher or sports coach.”

Moreover, by dividing the conversation based on gender, it has been suggested by some that male survivors could feel excluded from movements encouraging them to overcome their trauma. But what does all of this mean when it comes to cases such as Ford’s? As psychotherapists such as Beverly Engel and RPE’s Debbi Tohill note, the misguided notion that false sexual assault claims are rampant can be a source of discouragement for survivors wanting to come forward. “False claims are rare,” explains Tohill, who believes consent needs to be more widely discussed. “It’s really important that we educate our young people about healthy and respectful relationships, and the meaning of consent. People will be less likely to make mistakes or misread signs such as body language if they are aware. Too often, we hear “she didn’t say no” as an excuse for sexual violence. What we need to hear before sexual activity takes place is a clear and enthusiastic ‘yes’.” Consent, a broader conversation on the topic nationwide and better resources are fundamental for encouraging survivors to overcome their experiences. But most importantly, Tohill says society needs to believe survivors.

Unsurprisingly, for many sexual assault survivors, the relentless media coverage surrounding the Kavanaugh case has brought back painful memories because ultimately, Ford was never believed. A constant reminder for many sexual assault survivor that their stories may not be heard, psychologists and support groups have warned survivors to be prepared for episodes of PTSD. “It takes courage to come forward as a survivor and certainly people who experienced sexual violence and have not been believed or not obtained a guilty verdict in a court case may struggle,” explains Tohill, who also says many survivors feel the onus is on them to provide proof a sexual assault occurred – even in cases where there is no evidence. But with sexual assault helplines like RAINN also reporting record numbers in calls this year, thanks in part to additional cases such as Cosby and Weinstein, perhaps the answer is not so far out of sight. “For too long, survivors have felt disbelieved and I think they can get a lot of strength from hearing others’ stories and the support that these women are receiving. I applaud the survivors who are giving their voice to the issue of sexual violence as it does gives strength to others. We don’t all need to speak out publicly but raising awareness of the magnitude of the issue is really important. Too often, victims feel alone and unsupported.” Indeed, despite speaking out publicly, Ford nevertheless lost her case. However, she has inspired countless women to come forward with their stories — even if that simply means making an anonymous call to a helpline. Moreover, she’s also ignited one of the largest and fiercest debates on subject. And whether pro-Kavanaugh or pro-Ford, it is clear this is a much-needed conversation.