This past week has been rough and emotionally taxing. The adamant support thrown behind Kavanaugh, despite the attempted sexual assault allegations against him and his testimony unveiling an angry and vindictive personality and a blatant partisanship unsuitable for a Supreme Court Justice, was yet another blatant reminder of how much the white men in positions of power, who still largely control our rights and fate, despise women for challenging them in any way and wanting to protect our own lives, bodies and rights. While watching the back-to-back Ford and Kavanaugh hearings last Thursday, I had flashbacks to the fall of 2016. I was once again seeing an intelligent and composed woman go up against a raging, blatantly deceitful and visibly unstable man on a national stage. Unlike in 2016, however, I have no illusions that decency and respect for women will play any role in the man being denied a position of tremendous power. If anything, 2016 has taught me that complete disregard for the female body and autonomy is in fact a great way to fire up support for that man and ensure he is given the power he feels entitled to.
A lot can be said about how damaging and terrifying the support for Kavanaugh and the attacks on Dr. Ford have been and how much they exemplify and amplify the culture of allowing men to assault women and disregard our rights and opinions both privately and at a national level. The one argument I want to specifically address, however, is the one propagated by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who has written a series of op-ed pieces over the past ten days, claiming to offer a rational and unbiased look at the Kavanaugh candidacy and the allegations against him, though providing anything but.
In a nutshell, Bret Stephens is concerned that the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh are not backed by “definitive evidence” and, as a result, it is imperative that Kavanaugh be confirmed in the name of “fairness.” He does not specify what definitive evidence would mean in his view, although, if I had to guess, I’d assume the bar would be entirely impossible to meet, given Stephens’s inclination, revealed by his self-proclaimed agnosticism about climate change, to disregard even findings widely-supported and verified by the worldwide scientific community. Stephens is also unhappy that people say they believe Dr. Ford, since he thinks Kavanaugh needs to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – a standard that is applicable in the court of law, but certainly not the bar set during most job interviews. The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week were meant to determine whether Brett Kavanaugh was fit to serve for the rest of his life as a judge in the highest court in the land, where he would have the ability to impact the lives of millions of people for decades. They were not a criminal trial where careful evidence collection is needed before determining whether someone deserves to have their freedom taken away. That distinction is very important and appears to be lost on Mr. Stephens – being denied one of the most powerful jobs in the country is by no means equivalent to being sent to prison and, as such, should not require the same burden of proof. So frankly the “imagine if this were your husband or father” sentiment expressed by Bret Stephens (and Lindsey Graham; and the President; and many others) seems very odd to me. If my husband or father were accused of assaulting one or multiple women, I would be deeply ashamed of them and would not want them to serve as Supreme Court Justices either.
In the face of a system inclined to discredit and doubt survivors, it is no wonder that rape is the most under-reported crime in the US, with 63% of sexual assaults remaining unreported (some statistics placing the figure at closer to 69 percent), only 5.7% of reported rape cases resulting in arrest, only 1.1% being referred to a prosecutor and only 0.7% resulting in convictions, according to data from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). The default in sexual assault cases has always been to immediately start discrediting the survivors by retroactively projecting consent on them (e.g. “why did she go to his apartment/hotel room/car/office if she didn’t want sex”) and/or trying to place the blame on them (e.g. “if only she hadn’t been drinking/wearing that dress/gone to that party”). That inclination to instinctively believe the perpetrator, combined with the fact that sexual assault is often intertwined with power, privilege and social status, allows predators who already have institutional or financial leverage over someone – an employee, a student, a younger relative – to take advantage of that power through sexual dominance, all the while knowing that they will have the means, the social capital and the default credibility behind them to protect them from facing real consequences. In other words, survivors who do speak up have very little to gain, as their assailants are very likely to not be punished in any way, and a lot to lose in the form of reliving their trauma publicly, while being shamed and mocked (possibly by the President of the United States himself).
So to me, #believesurvivors means creating an environment where survivors feel safe to report their assaults while potential perpetrators feel unsafe to assault anyone because they know they would be held accountable for it. It means treating reports of assault as we hopefully treat reports of other crimes – by taking them seriously and investigating them without immediately doubting the victim. It means not giving men, who have been accused of assault, positions of great power, from which they will determine the legal rights of women to have autonomy over their own bodies and will likely influence legislation about sexual assault, partner abuse and other forms of gender-based violence.
On the other hand, Bret Stephens is implying is that even slightly endangering an alleged sexual predator’s ability to serve on the Supreme Court is worse than the lifelong trauma sexual assault survivors and their families have to live with, and that in assault cases, the accused person is the one who needs to immediately be granted the privilege of credibility in the name of “fairness.” This is precisely what we, as a society, have been doing for decades, and defending that status quo is not nearly as revolutionary, brave or unbiased as Mr. Stephens seems to believe it is.