Content warning: The below includes mentions of sexual violence and assault.
Ford has said that in 1982, when she was 15 years old, she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, who is awaiting official appointment to the Supreme Court. Over the past week, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick have also come forward against Kavanaugh with accusations of sexual harassment. Kavanaugh denies these claims. Kavanaugh was nominated for this position by our current president, who’s not only been accused by several women of sexual assault, but who has bragged about being abusive on tape. This is the world in which we live.
Public reactions to the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination have included a rallying cry from those who believe his accusers and, of course, a number of people either excusing or ignoring the fact that he has, most likely, been sexually violent toward women. Trevor Noah summed up the GOP defense of Kavanaugh pretty succinctly on The Daily Show Monday night: “Our guy’s a saint. She’s lying about what happened. But if she is telling the truth, it probably wasn’t so bad. And even if it was so bad, everyone does it, so who cares?” This is the world in which we live.
Where do I even begin?
I cried in the shower this morning, thinking about how rape culture is ruining everything. There is nothing revelatory about that statement; it’s something I’ve known for longer than is comfortable, but intimate knowledge of vile truths don’t make them easier to stomach. I hate being reminded of such things. But at least I am able to do so in an era of #TimesUp and #MeToo, when there are people who make it their business to campaign for believing and supporting survivors.
And then I think of Anita Hill, who was not afforded that same comfort. Hill became the first woman to testify against a Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, in 1991. Despite the fact that she detailed years of inappropriate treatment from Thomas — which by any modern definition would be sexual harassment — he was confirmed. He enjoys his position as a Supreme Court justice to this day.
The Senate is expected to make a decision on whether Brett Kavanaugh will join Thomas as an arbiter for the nation’s top court as early as Friday. Kavanaugh’s history isn’t the only thing that makes him a frightening choice: His conservative stance means the Supreme Court will likely have the votes needed to overturn Roe v. Wade — and who knows what else.
Today, Ford will testify before the Senate Judiciary committee — the same body that heard Hill’s testimony nearly three decades ago. Back then, a panel of all white men forced Ms. Hill, a Black woman, to rehash the gruesome details of her abuse over and over again for the benefit of determining whether she was a “credible” witness. They determined, along with much of the nation, that she was not. Senator Orrin Hatch even went so far as to insinuate that Ms. Hill plagiarized details of her accusation from The Exorcist. The current committee is made up of 10 Democrats, diverse in race and gender, and 11 Republicans, still all white men — three of whom interrogated Ms. Hill all those years ago. (This time, however, they’ve brought in an outside litigator to do the questioning.)
So, what’s changed? Misogynist pushback and denial has been met by an outcry of support for Ford that was almost nonexistent for Anita Hill. That support included a protest on Monday which, per The New York Times, “brought together women and men across the country for rallies and a walkout organized by a coalition that included Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, UltraViolet Action, Planned Parenthood and MoveOn.”
Believing survivors is a simple concept, but one, it seems, many people need clearly articulated. Why are some people easier to believe than others? The fact of the matter is, the institutions that structure our lives are built off of misogyny and racism and sexism and classism. Our society is set up in a way that keeps those who move through the world in bodies that are most vulnerable to heteropatriarchal violence, well, vulnerable. Not everyone’s stories are given the same weight. Many stories are unheard, untold.
Take, for example, the Daniel Holtzclaw case. A former Oklahoma City PD patrol officer, Holtzclaw was convicted in 2015 on numerous counts of rape and violent sexual assault. He chose his dozens of victims (that we know of) carefully, preyed on the marginalized femmes he encountered through his work. They were poor, sometimes drug users, sometimes sex workers. Sometimes teens. Always Black. He chose them because he assumed that, if they ever decided to come forward, no one would believe them — a valid assumption considering the world in which we live: According to a research analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, “That a rape victim happens to be African American should have no effect on the prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of her attacker, but it does.”
Some survivors of Holtzclaw’s monstrous attacks did finally come forward, and their testimonies were verified by DNA, resulting in a 263-year sentence for their abuser. And yet their names never made national headlines. As Treva Lindsey reported for Cosmopolitan.com, “In a historical moment in which campaigns to end sexual violence and to address racism at all levels of the criminal justice system thrive, a case involving an alleged serial rapist of black women has garnered far too little national outrage.”
I was reminded of this case as I watched the world walk out for Christine Ford. I felt grateful to Black women like Hill and Burke who have pushed the needle in terms of what it means to speak out and support each other. And I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken at the same time. Where is that same care, compassion and solidarity when it comes to those who don’t look like Ford? Where are the hashtags and the walkouts? Where is the outrage?
People of color are more likely to experience sexual assault than any other group. Fifty-three percent of Black trans folks have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Indigenous women, per capita, experience more rape and sexual assault than any other racial group in the nation. Sex workers, who are not typically protected by rape shield laws, experience extremely high rates of sexual violence. And yet the stories that incite the most national fury typically involve the privileged — the white, the affluent, the famous. These are the shiny stories.
In times like these, when there is so much to fear, no one should have to worry about being silenced, ignored or disbelieved. And while it’s critical to stand up and support all who have come forward, it is also critical to recognize who are first in line to get that support — and interrogate why that is, how we can do better. Sincere and dedicated interest in dismantling rape culture requires believing survivors regardless of gender, race or class; a dedication to ending violence toward all those who identify as women and gender nonconforming; supporting those who are less visible to us. Those with the least access tend to be the most in need. There are no model victims.
I believe survivors. Those who can and do come forward, and those who cannot or do not choose to. I stand behind Anita Hill, Christine Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick and all of those whose names I do not know. And I’m eager for this conversation, and the action it inspires, to broaden and deepen in every direction. I know this won’t happen overnight, but I’m hopeful.
“All survivors need to be believed and supported,” says Laura Palumbo, Communications Director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Victims have a variety of needs and concerns in the wake of an assault, so it is vital for them to have options including access to trauma-informed resources and services. It is also critical to increase understanding of the issue of sexual violence, so we can more effectively address and ultimately prevent [it].”
While we work toward these goals, there are many organizations in need of resources. Below, some information on how to provide any time or money you have to spare.
Read up on and donate to Survived & Punished, an all-volunteer grassroots coalition working toward freedom for criminalized and incarcerated survivors and their communities. Their work relies on grassroots donations and your support is key to keeping the work moving. You can also donate via the website of its fiscal sponsor, Allied Media Projects, or mail a check* made out to to “Allied Media Projects” to:
Allied Media Projects
4126 Third St.
Detroit, MI 48201
*Please write “Survived and Punished” in the memo line.
Donate to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.
Support Love & Protect, an organization that supports those who identify as women and gender non-conforming persons of color who are criminalized or harmed by state and interpersonal violence.
Sign the petition to thank Dr. Anita Hill for her bravery in speaking truth to power.
Read up on your role in preventing sexual assault.
Photo by Zach Gibson via Getty Images.