Sexual Violence and Supreme Court confirmation hearings

Dear SCP colleagues:

I’m sure most of us have been following the very difficult and emotional Supreme Court nomination process, with the allegations of sexual assault against nominee Brett Kavanaugh by psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D. (and related accusations by at least two other women). It is extraordinarily challenging in these kinds of situations to find balance between our personal reactions to events and what the scholarship tells us about the complex elements that make up those events. Our purpose here is to provide a brief list of talking points and some resources relevant to the issues raised by this political process we have been witnessing.

Neither SCP nor APA makes statements that can be construed as partisan or politically-motivated (which is why you saw statements circulating of personal support for Dr. Ford). However, we are empowered to — and should — provide information, perspective, and guidance on these current events, as well as resources that may help us in our conversations with our clients, students, colleagues, elected officials, families, friends, and communities. APA has provided a great deal of information to the media in recent days, and many of the news stories thus contain a distillation of large bodies of psychological research. Because they are succinct and accessible, we cite several of them here.

Our organization has no influence over the outcome of this process (even if we all agreed on what it should be), but it is impossible to ignore the importance of this moment in our cultural history in the U.S., particularly the way in which these events have strengthened the growing inclusion of sexual violence into our societal awareness and conversations. Much of what we know from scholarship about sexual violence has found its way into what we have been witnessing over the past days — including misinformation and misinterpretation. Thus, it is important to highlight a few points that might help all of us in our conversations with others about these events, which are likely to continue to affect us long after they have been officially “resolved” in the political arena:

  • Dr. Ford reports being sexually assaulted (and the behavior she recounts IS defined clearly as sexual assault) by nominee Kavanaugh when she was 15, and he was 17, years old. It is highly unlikely that she is making up an event that she remembers in such vivid detail. Indeed, a recent APA Presidential Statement by Dr, Jessica Henderson-Danielon the science behind sexual assault reporting indicates very low percentages of false reports. Moreover, this summary of the science also indicates that Dr. Ford’s greater recall of the assault itself than her memory of the time immediately before and after is entirely consistent with what is known about the storage of traumatic memories; such memories are seared into the brain with access to detailed recall many, many years after they occurred, and after other, less traumatic, memories have faded (Henderson-Daniel, APA Statement cited above)

 

  • The fact that Dr. Ford did not disclose the assault until many years later is also entirely consistent with what is known about the reporting of sexual violence, which the APA Presidential Statement (above) asserts is likely the most under-reported crime in the U.S. Victims don’t report out of fear, shame and humiliation, shock, socialization to behave nicely and accept sexual advances, and expectation of being blamed or further shamed. It is not at all uncommon for detailed accounts of sexual violence to surface long after they occurred (Henderson-Daniel, APA Statement, cited above).

 

  • Brett Kavanaugh’s denial that the event happened is also consistent with scholarship on sexual assault. Memories of trauma are much more likely to be stored than memories of routine events, so it is not surprising that an event experienced by Ford as traumatic (and thus recalled in detail) could have been experienced as “ordinary” by Mr. Kavanaugh (and thus not recalled at all), in his male adolescent social context of routine heavy drinking, callow and callous attitudes toward women and sex, frequent partying, and emphasis on physical strength and prowess as an athlete. In particular, research is unequivocal that excessive alcohol consumption impairs memory (see Forbes citation above), and Mr. Kavanaugh’s reputation as a heavy drinker appears to be beyond dispute. Clinical psychologist Todd Essig, in his explanation of the science behind the discrepancy between the two accounts (in Forbes, cited above), summed it up quite succinctly: It is not a question of “He said, She said,” but rather “She remembers, He doesn’t.”

 

  • As Essig (Forbes article, cited above) has noted, what is especially problematic about Mr. Kavanaugh’s stance is that he and others supporting his nomination have translated his purported lack of memory of the event (and the lack of memory of the event by other witnesses, currently being investigated) to a complete denialthat he was involved in the event at all (vs. the very real possibility that he may have assaulted Dr. Ford without remembering it). This misinterpretation of memory lapse reflects a common pattern of men denying women’s stories of sexual violence, and it buttresses white male privilege in defining reality. The denial of even the possibility of Mr.  Kavanaugh’s involvement in an assault also is reflected in the decision of his supporters to allow a professional prosecutor of sexual violence cases to question the survivor, but not the alleged perpetrator. Moreover, the deliberate conflation of memory lapse with denial of culpability also reveals something of Mr. Kavanaugh’s temperament and his unwillingness to consider a scientifically supportable and plausible possibility, characteristics that are important considerations in seating a Supreme Court judge.

 

 

  • Oft-noted differential expectations for the expression of emotion by women and men also were on view in the self-presentations of Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh – she was deferential, “terrified” (her word, repeated often in the media coverage), and soft-spoken, and he was angry, accusatory, and loud. Interestingly, both were tearful, and the fact that tears were unexpected from Mr. Kavanaugh appeared to shore up his credibility, offset his more dominant presentation of outrage, and introduce a view of him as a victim. Moreover, a wide range of expression was tolerated from Mr. Kavanaugh, and we only need to imagine Dr. Ford outraged, loud, and angry to realize how much more constricted her behavior likely had to be in order for her to be deemed credible as a woman and a victim.

 

  • Finally, due to the high visibility of this event, many people have been triggered and are coming forth to disclose their own experiences of sexual violence and trauma, often for the first time. We are likely to see survivors and their loved ones in therapy, in education and training, among our colleagues, and in our advocacy work. It is very likely that some of us, too, are re-experiencing prior trauma from our own victimization, or vicarious trauma from our work or from witnessing similar events in the past (such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings with allegations by Anita Hill). Emerging accounts of trauma and re-traumatization are likely to be exacerbated by a (probable) outcome of this political process that ultimately dismisses Dr. Ford’s experiences and accepts Mr. Kavanaugh’s denial, particularly within the current administration’s rhetoric of false facts, witch hunts, and untrustworthy media, all of which serve to cast doubt on women’s accounts when they challenge powerful men.

It is vitally important that we support, educate, and provide resources to others as needed, and that we care for ourselves and one another. We know that therapy helps, that people heal from trauma, that we can and will move beyond assigning responsibility to women for preventing sexual violence, that we have tools to build prevention programs that centralize men’s roles in changing the rape culture, and that we know many of the broader things we need to do (e.g., create equitable workplaces, eliminate bullying in schools, develop humane immigration processes) in order to create healthy, thriving communities. We also have an active division full of colleagues who are committed to this work and to supporting one another.

Please see here for more resources (that includes everything cited above and much more) that might be helpful to you. We will post these on the SCP website, and we will add to the list as we obtain new resources, so check the website frequently. We are here to help you in your work. Please let us know what you need, and we will try our very best to provide it.

Warmly and in hope,

Ruth, with:

  • Nadia Hasan and Laurel Watson, current and former Chairs of the Section for the Advancement of Women; and
  • Cirleen De Blaere, Vice President for Diversity and Public Interest; and the following members of SCP governance:
  • Louise Douce
  • Bryana French
  • Arpana Inman
  • Alexandra Minieri
  • Ashley Randell
  • Amy Reynolds
  • Anneliese Singh
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