Some have dismissed the allegations of sexual assault brought against Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh as ancient history, a youthful “indiscretion” or a product of the times. This is not a problem of the ‘80s. Nor is it only a problem in elite prep schools. This is a problem of privilege and power on the part of men, raised to feel they have a right to women’s bodies however and whenever they wish. And the presence of alcohol neither explains nor excuses these all too frequent acts.
As the parent of a 15-year-old girl and an instructor of Empowerment Self Defense, I work to make sure my daughter has the confidence to speak up for herself. I teach her how to fight back if needed, and I assure her that if something does happen she will be believed not blamed and that help is available.
Knowing she may not come to me, I work to make sure she has other trusted adults in her life and that she knows she can call/text/chat the Sexual Assault Response Services hotline (800-871-7741) to talk to someone anonymously. Yet I know that there are other social and cultural forces that work to keep her quiet, and stop her from fully owning and taking up space in the world.
Women and girls receive bifurcated messages. We are strong, smart and capable of anything, and yet we learn early on that being too forthright, too clear about what we want, need and feel will make others uncomfortable and slap us with such labels as: difficult to work with, not being a team player, bossy or the other “B” word. Learning to move through those confines and to support and amplify one other is a lifelong journey.
Sexual harassment and assault is relatively commonplace for today’s 15-year-olds. An American Association of University Women study in 2010-11 found that nearly half of students in 7th-12th grade experienced sexual harassment and of them fewer than half reported it. A quarter of American women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Sexual harassment and assault is clearly not a problem of the ‘80s.
In high school, college and workplaces, women, LGBTQA+ and gender expansive people know too well the cost of coming forward, of reporting instances of harassment, abuse and assault. Social vilification, isolation and ongoing retaliation remain a cost of reporting for many. Experiences of sexual assault underly eating problems, mental and physical health problems, and increased suicidality among teens. Academic and workplace repercussions can be expensive as well as traumatic with survivors reporting failing classes, losing access to special assignments, internships, promotions and other opportunities that come from being a trusted member of an in-group.
Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were in high school, feared for her life all those years ago. She was able to get out of the situation and counted herself lucky to have done so. She knew what would happen if she reported the assault in her small community, so she tried to leave it behind her.
Yet trauma doesn’t like to let go. It requires time, often decades, to process and to heal. The very real threat of repercussions against self, family and career caused Ford to ask for confidentiality in initially sharing her story. She risks much as she prepares herself to testify in front of a largely older white male Senate Judiciary Committee. As we bear witness to her courage and struggle, we must consider what today’s 15-year-olds will learn from the discourses and actions of the adults surrounding them.
In order to perpetrate sexual assault one needs to be able to see their target as “the other” not as a friend or classmate, co-worker or peer, but as an object. I want the next Supreme Court justice to see people, to empathize with our experiences, to recognize our humanity, and to honor and uphold our ability and rights to control our own bodies, make medical decisions, and live free from harassment and assault. I want my 15-year-old to know that she will be treated with equal protection under the law.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-871-7741.
Clara Porter is the director of Prevention. Action. Change. in Portland and the former executive director of Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine.
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