Today Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified on the sexual assault allegations Ford has made against Kavanaugh.
I am a rape survivor, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story hurts. She alleges Brett Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth as he backed her against a wall and sexually assaulted her, that he put his hands on her body against her will, that he violated her.
The similarities between her story and mine are striking. As I listened to her testimony this morning, my chest felt like it was caving in; my palms began to sweat; my heart rate skyrocketed and I remembered how it felt to be backed against a wall as someone took something from me that I did not give.
I am a rape survivor, but I am also a law student. A brand new one, true – I began my first year this August – but a future attorney nonetheless. My career should be led by facts, analysis, and truth, and I intend to it to be so. Therefore, today, I do not want to tell you about how I feel. I do not want to tell you that you should blindly believe Dr. Ford, regardless of my own beliefs. I want to tell you about facts, I want to talk about how our culture interprets them, and I want to talk about the widespread and damaging effect that interpretation is having.
Ever since Dr. Ford’s accusations surfaced, social media, as it is wont to do, has exploded with opinions, think pieces, arguments, and some truly nasty exchanges. #WhyIDidntReport began trending as victims of sexual violence shared their stories explaining just how difficult it is to do so. #ProtectOurBoys emerged as people expressed fear that American society is heading down a slippery slope wherein men and boys’ lives can be ruined by false accusations without due process, and #YesKavanaugh emerged in support of Kavanaugh’s nomination, with many expressing skepticism of Dr. Ford’s claims.
I do not deny, nor will I ever, that false accusations of sexual assault happen. I do not deny that they are awful and unacceptable. I have known individuals who were falsely accused. I was incensed on their behalf. It can, indeed, ruin lives.
What I do deny is that they are commonplace. Studies indicate the rate of false accusations of this nature lie anywhere from 2% to 8%. It is admittedly difficult to determine an exact number due to the unique nature of sex crimes; roughly 60% of sexual assaults are not officially reported at all.
It is worth noting that many studies include “unsubstantiated” claims in this number, and claims are most often labeled “unsubstantiated” due to insufficient evidence. As many of us know, a lack of evidence does not necessarily mean a crime did not occur, and further, acquiring such evidence is uniquely difficult in instances of sexual assault. Sometimes it leaves no traces – for example, when someone is forced against a wall and groped. No bruises appear. No bodily fluids are left behind. Other times, victims express feeling so “dirty” after being violated that they throw away or destroy the clothes they were wearing. Sometimes they feel so ashamed they are unwilling to go to the hospital for a rape test.
Many criticize victims for such behavior – if they want justice, why wouldn’t they go through the proper channels? Why wouldn’t they do everything in their power to preserve evidence?
Consider this: our culture’s attitude towards sex has made rape the only crime that makes a victim feel the shame that should be felt by the perpetrator. It is the only crime where our first reaction is skepticism. It is the only crime where victims’ past sex lives, clothing, and potential intoxication is picked apart. We do not tell robbery victims they deserved to be robbed because they were wearing pants with pockets that weren’t properly secured; we don’t tell mugging victims they consented to the mugging because they had been drinking. The prospect of facing this unique reaction is daunting for survivors, particularly if forensic evidence is not available to bolster their claim.
The #ProtectOurBoys supporters, prominent politicians, and many public figures either do not understand the above, or feel that false accusations are so damaging that it is preferable to be skeptical. They feel the greatest danger we face on this issue, one we must avoid at all costs, is a culture of accusation. Whether or not I agree that that is the greatest danger, I can understand it. False accusation is wrong. In fact, I consider it a form of abuse. The question is, what is the surest way to protect people from abuse? Why can’t we create a culture in which victims are believed, and abuse is taken seriously? Wouldn’t that help everyone?
The answer lies in education. With education comes empathy and with empathy comes change, and we are in desperate need of both. If you were surprised by the rate of false accusations, share it. If you had never considered why victims of sexual assault might destroy evidence, do so. If you think false accusations are the greatest danger, so much so that it takes precedence over holding perpetrators accountable, I implore you to keep reading. Keep listening. And keep learning.