Why don’t women report alleged abuse? Just look at the Kavanaugh saga

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
October 08, 2018 /

Click here to view original /

The shoehorning of Brett Kavanaugh onto the US supreme court has delivered some fascinating insights on both the American political landscape and the state of sexual politics in 2018.

Progressives like to think gender relations are always getting better. Perhaps it’s all happening achingly slowly, but nonetheless we like to believe progress is afoot. For those who shed proper racking sobs when Donald Trump was elected even after a tape of him bragging about grabbing women by the genitals surfaced, the last couple of years – and, more specifically the last couple of weeks – have truly tested our faith in progress.

For weeks, we watched a spectacle that painfully mirrored a process that played out in 1991, when attorney (now professor) Anita Hill accused US Supreme Court nominee, and her former supervisor, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. It mirrored the Hill scenario even down to the detail of three of the same faces who scrutinised Hill sitting in judgment of the woman whoaccused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her 36 years ago, Dr Christine Blasey Ford.

Could it be possible that decades on, we’re still committed to not letting a woman interrupt a powerful man’s destiny? Kavanaugh strongly denied all sexual allegations made about him.

There were, of course, some crucial differences this time around.

Frat boy culture was put under the microscope during the Kavanaugh hearings, unlike in 1991. In 2018, apparently there’s no statute of limitations on a teen’s drunk past catching up with him; at least women’s voices were heard. Maybe not by those who should have listened, but at least by the rest of us.

And here lies the glimmer of hope that we have today that was absent in 1991: social media has thoroughly overhauled the landscape for alleged sexual assault or harassment victims.

From the Ford story surfaced the WhyIDidntReport hashtag, and a movement of victims sharing why they, too kept silent about alleged abuse. This has shed light on why for women, keeping quiet is, alas, the norm. It also delivered a treasure trove of data.

Sadly, Kavanaugh’s confirmation has acted to validate many of the fears outlined by women who said they chose not to report their alleged assault; mainly the fear of facing a culture that is venomously suspicious of victims.

The passage of time was another factor women mentioned, as well as embarrassment, shame, the consumption of alcohol or drugs, the wearing of a low, or high cut garment (so, fear of the bad old “she was asking for it” excuse). Fear of retribution came up, as did internalised feelings of responsibility. Not wanting to implicate a loved one was another barrier.

Sexual violence in all its forms is notoriously underreported, with only a fraction of assaults ever accompanied by a visit to a police station. If the Kavanaugh hearings yielded any benefit, it’s the provision of insight into why so few reports are made.

In delivering her testimony, Ford put herself in a perilous situation. Not only did she face a largely hostile senate filled with men who appeared unapologetically resistant to hearing to her story, but she also fronted millions of Americans willing to vote for a man with over a dozen similar accusations hanging over his head.

Ford reportedly received death threats, had to move her family into hiding, and now exists as a living and breathing embodiment of the deterrents to disclosure about sexual harassment or assault.

For Ford, one consequence of speaking up about her alleged assault was being mocked by a United States president.

Two central criticisms underpinned skepticism about Ford’s testimony. The first, and the most easily dismissed, is that it was political. As a political scientist I’d argue everything is political, but equally, I’d respond, so what? Coming forward only when a man who you say abused you is about to get a lifetime appointment that will influence the health and sexual freedoms of women for a generation sounds, to me, less political and more the act of a bona fide act of patriotism.

The second, and more thorny factor, was time: ie that Ford took too long to report. Such a position of course, only makes sense to people who have never been in a situation of sexual trauma and who thus harbor delusions, or at least misinformation, about how a rational person would, or “should”, respond.

Added to the above-mentioned factors keeping sexual assault reporting rates low are institutional impediments to reporting, and the knowledge among women that it is near-impossible to get a sexual assault or rape conviction. As long as it looks like we’re a society that expends so much energy on not addressing sexual violence, fear of reporting will prevent it occurring and a culture which tolerates rape will continue.

Brett Kavanaugh can now call himself Justice. Perhaps if we were honest with ourselves we always knew this would happen. If the last few years have taught women anything, it’s to keep our expectations low and brace for things to get lower.

© Lauren Rosewarne 2018