5 Things Senators Need to Know to Do Right by Survivors of Sexual Violence
By: Shaunna Thomas, Co-Founder and Executive Director, UltraViolet and Terri Poore, Policy Director, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence
Right now, the Senate Judiciary Committee is moving forward with a sham hearing not meant to get to the truth about Brett Kavanaugh. The primary reason to hold this hearing is to put a survivor, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, on trial on live television. While we understand the Senate Judiciary Committee’s keen interest in speaking to Dr. Blasey Ford, the reported process falls far short of what should and must be done.
Simply put: Dr. Blasey Ford is not on trial. She is a survivor of sexual assault who already shared her story publicly. This process should be an effort to gather information about the fitness of a man poised to receive a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh is the one who must answer for his actions, not Dr. Blasey Ford.
There is no worse place to air serious accusations of attempted rape than the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by men who have not learned a single lesson from Anita Hill and have shown outright disdain for the #MeToo movement.
To support survivors is to believe survivors, full stop. But that isn’t the place the Senate is operating from right now. As a result, Dr. Blasey Ford is being asked to testify in a hearing that has the potential to be enormously damaging to her and survivors everywhere.
Here’s what the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee need to know to be on the side of survivors:
1. “Believe survivors” is a necessary paradigm shift to avoid mistakes made by the Senate when Anita Hill testified. “Believe survivors” is not a standard for criminal justice proceedings. It’s a choice to flip the script on rape culture and understand the realities of sexual violence. That shift in assumptions is necessary to create different outcomes, particularly accountability. We must believe survivors of sexual violence, understanding the complexities of their choices about how or when they come forward. There’s almost always a high cost for exposing abusers, especially men in positions of power, so there is a lot for survivors to weigh before speaking out.
2. Investigations — from criminal proceedings to human resources investigations to public hearings — are systemically stacked against survivors of sexual violence. Out of every 1000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will not face any punishment. In the workplace, the process is run by human resources, which is set up to protect the company, which means protecting the abuser. Over 75% of women who report harassment face retaliation. On the current Senate Judiciary Committee, those who set the rules are all white men. The bottom line is that investigations, as we currently conduct them, are set up to protect the abuser.
Senators should instead choose to pursue a trauma-informed approach. This first includes allowing for as much input as possible from Dr. Blasey Ford into the time, date, and format of questioning. Senators must also refrain from negative judgment and inaccurate, stereotypical assumptions that delayed reports, gaps in memory, and emotional presentations reflect on credibility.
3. Do not rush these hearings. Rushing the hearings signals that sexual violence is not being taken seriously and, in a practical sense, it’s just not enough time to do it right. This rush also suggests an adversarial process designed to intimidate and discredit Dr. Blasey Ford. Not only is this timing problematic for the process, but it would be deeply traumatizing for any survivor. A thorough investigation, wherein Dr. Blasey Ford is listened to objectively, other relevant witnesses are spoken to, and other corroborating information and evidence is gathered, must be completed before any hearing is scheduled. As suggested by Hill, the public would be better served by taking the time for “a neutral investigative body with experience in sexual misconduct cases [to] investigate the incident in question and present its findings to the committee.” Dr. Blasey Ford was courageous in sharing her story and it is outrageous that some are suggesting she be cross-examined by Kavanaugh’s attorney at the upcoming hearing.
4. Kavanaugh should be the one on the hot seat. Rather than working from the assumption that she is lying and trying to make her prove she’s not, scrutinize his actions. We are operating in the court of public opinion, and she is being attacked, undermined, shamed, and punished for speaking up. Senators must actively work to ensure that her credibility is not the main focus of any hearing. Kavanaugh’s actions as described by Dr. Blasey Ford are possibly part of a pattern of abusive behavior. If senators are working from the assumption — the paradigm shift — that she is telling the truth, they should investigate Kavanaugh’s past and look for patterns.
For Kavanaugh, this is a job interview, not a trial. A credible accusation based on a preponderance of evidence is reason enough to not give him a lifetime appointment to the highest court. Further, he has repeatedly shown his reflex is to lie, whether it’s about stolen emails, Judge Alex Kozinski, or sexual assault. Lying should also be disqualifying.
5. No one is entitled to positions of power. People in positions of power must be held to a higher standard, especially someone seeking a lifetime appointment on our highest court. Abusing power and authority by sexually harassing and assaulting people and then lying about it must be disqualifying. Sexual violence is fundamentally about power. Power is used to pressure, silence, shame, or retaliate. We cannot let those who would abuse power continue to hold power.
Dr. Blasey Ford was incredibly brave to come forward and share her story. Since she went public, she has faced death threats and personal attacks. The Senate Judiciary Committee must support survivors of sexual assault and recognize these key points before any hearing proceeds. It is Kavanaugh who is under investigation, not Dr. Blasey Ford.