This is why sexual violence survivors don’t come forward

“Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Christine Blasey Ford says she was sexually assaulted in the early 1980s by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh when they were both high school students. More than 30 years later, the public knows her story -- whether she wanted us to or not. The institutional failures that have led to this moment show exactly why survivors of sexual violence choose not to share their stories of trauma with the world.

On September 16, The Washington Post published an exclusive interview with Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University. In the article, Ford publicly shared her own account of what happened on that night in Bethesda, MD:

Speaking publicly for the first time, Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both “stumbling drunk,” Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.

While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”

Ford said she was able to escape when Kavanaugh’s friend and classmate at Georgetown Preparatory School, Mark Judge, jumped on top of them, sending all three tumbling. She said she ran from the room, briefly locked herself in a bathroom and then fled the house.

The Post additionally reviewed notes from therapy sessions Ford had and spoke with her husband who corroborated that Ford had shared her account in couples therapy in 2012. On the advice of her attorney, Ford also took a polygraph test in August; the results showed she was being truthful in relaying her account of the incident.

The Post exclusive also shed light on Ford’s choice to come forward publicly -- a tremendously difficult decision that wasn’t entirely up to her.

Ford had first contacted the Post as well as her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), in July, when Kavanaugh was said to be on the short list for the Supreme Court nomination but was not yet the official nominee. By the end of August, after she had shared her account confidentially with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as well, she decided that she would not come forward. Though Ford says that she believes Feinstein respected her wishes and kept her story confidential -- including referring Ford’s letter about Kavanaugh to the FBI with names redacted -- some details soon became public.

A series of reports followed -- first from The Intercept, then BuzzFeed News, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and CNN -- all of them working to corroborate details about Ford’s account and trying to get Ford to go on the record. There was also a vague statement from Feinstein about her decision to refer the letter to the FBI, and a broad denial by Kavanaugh. Together these developments fueled the early rumblings of a sinister right-wing smear campaign against a then-unnamed victim of an attempted rape.

Ford watched “as that bare-bones version of her story became public without her name or her consent,” wrote the Post’s Emma Brown. And then she decided -- if decided is the right word -- to publicly stamp this decades-old pain onto her face and name, to be pushed out into the world for mass exploitation even further beyond her control. Ford felt it was “her duty as a citizen to tell the story” and to sacrifice her autonomy to her alleged assailant another time.

The smear campaign is already in high gear

So far for Ford, this responsibility has shamefully translated into not just to publicly reliving her trauma, but also being categorically smeared for it. Even before Ford’s identity or the details of her account were made public, conservatives were questioning her motives. And since Ford has shared her name and account, the right-wing media sphere has shifted to making personal attacks on her character and insinuating she’s working with the Democratic Party.

In a tellingly vicious and sloppy instance, right-wing sites including The Gateway Pundit and Drudge Report cited “Rate My Professors” reviews of a different Christine Ford in order to smear her as an “unhinged liberal professor who former students describe as dark, mad, scary and troubled.” And in a slightly different display of misogyny, other commentators have said they do in fact believe Ford -- but that they don’t think the reported harm done to her warrants an end to Kavanaugh’s confirmation process.

There is more to come

Demonstrating a complete lack of understanding that an individual is capable of harming one person while also not harming every other person he encounters, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) released a letter hours after the New Yorker report came out signed by 65 women who say they knew Kavanaugh in high school and that he never acted inappropriately to their knowledge. (For what it’s worth, more than 200 of Ford’s classmates have since signed onto a different letter saying, in part, “Dr. Blasey Ford’s experience is all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending [Holton-Arms School]. Many of us are survivors ourselves.”)

The White House, helmed by a known serial sexual harasser, has said so far it will not be withdrawing the nomination. A vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Kavanaugh’s nomination is still planned for Thursday, though more and more senators from both parties, including some who sit on the committee, have now said they’d like to hear from Ford before moving forward with a vote. And Ford’s attorney has now said she is willing to testify before Congress about her account of Kavanaugh’s misconduct.  

The comparisons to attorney Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony recounting sexual harassment by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are stronger than ever. From personal smears and accusations of political motives, to miscategorizing an abuse of power as a “personal” matter, both cases illustrate the myriad personal harms survivors of mistreatment at the hands of the powerful often face when their stories become public.

Look at the political and right-wing media circus surrounding this very serious allegation so far, or consider the eerily similar and immensely degrading reaction that followed Hill’s disclosure so many years ago, and ask yourself: Why would anyone speak up?

“Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” Ford had told the Post.

Here is the difference: We can still get it right this time. Listen to Ford. The attempted annihilation is already well underway. It is now up to media to make sure it matters.