Why Belief is Important in Understanding Sexual Assault
It has been painful to live through the Kavanaugh hearings today. It's monumentally difficult to try to grasp the gravity of what's going on (Marvin Gaye has helped me a bit this afternoon to really understand What's Going On); imbued within the discourse around this confirmation hearing are questions of racial justice in its corollary to Anita Hill's hearings, the politics of gender and sexual assault survivors, the respectability politics of America's judicial system, etc. One of the largest social justice issues that these hearings have highlighted is the problem of belief and proof as it relates to sexual assault survivors.
Before I go on, I would like to fully disclose my subject position and my personal beliefs concerning this case as to expose whatever bias one may wish to read into my reflection here.
I believe Dr. Ford.
I think it is important for women to be believed and to feel that they can be believed in allegations of sexual assault.
I tend to vote Democratic, but I resoundingly repudiate party politics because they more often than not uphold a status quo of cultural/political/social hegemony, which is often oppressive to women and black and brown folks.
I'm a straight white guy who identifies as a feminist.
I am training to be a critical race theorist and hip-hop scholar, which means that I am studying how American law fails as a project of justice for non-white people. I am not a feminist scholar nor a scholar of gender.
With this background in mind, I find it enormously evident today that there is a shortcoming in the way that victims of sexual assault are treated in the locale of the courtroom and other judicial settings. America's judicial system places the burden of proof on the accuser not the accused, which in most cases is a fair and just ideal (not always a fair and just practice). Sexual assault itself is a particular case because of the locale of its crime. More often than not sexual assaults are committed in private places with few people being able to corroborate the testimonies of the victim or the accuser. There can be proof of sexual assault if there are witnesses, if there was significant bodily harm to the victim, or if the victim reports the crime immediately, but more often than not these are practically invisible crimes.
However, witnesses can be be difficult to secure as sexual assaulters often isolate their victims and trauma can deeply impact memory; sometimes sexual assault isn't rape, and rape kits themselves are both humiliating and aren't always admitted as proof; victims also have to sacrifice their privacy and pride in cross-examination in a court room setting that often attempts to undermine their credibility and their character. Hospitals will often not provide rape kits to known sex workers, adding another obstacle to justice. When sexual assault survivors already have a monumental challenge to overcome the psychological residue of their trauma, facing the humiliation of a court room setting can seem too much to bear.
We've seen this today as Dr. Ford has been forced to publicize her private life as a national spectacle in order to prevent her alleged assaulter from sitting in the highest judicial seat in the nation. Granted, Judge Kavanaugh has experienced the same type of scrutiny, but quite frankly he has invited such humiliating questioning as a part of the confirmation process to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh is NOT a victim. He has invited this scrutiny. While false accusations do occur and are serious especially for true victims of assault, they are rare and are irrelevant in this spectacle.
Victims like Dr. Ford are forced to choose between abdicating their privacy and justice. In America particularly, we value private life as a right of all citizens. Victims, who of course have done nothing wrong, are forced to abdicate the right to privacy to pursue justice, and that justice rarely is granted to them due to the trouble with proving instances of sexual assault. While again, this is an issue for all victims, the particular problems with judicially proving sexual assault forces victims to choose between our country's privilege of privacy and their own safety and justice.
I don't have a solution to solve this issue. That solution ought to be in the hands of lawyers who are concerned deeply for the rights of those whose bodies are violated by others.
I do have a solution for our discourse concerning these cases. As a humanist, I believe that it is imperative to acknowledge the humanity of victims or alleged victims in the cases of sexual assault. Affirming belief in victims' stories allows them dignity that they cannot find in the justice system. Affirming belief in victims' stories demonstrates acceptance of their sacrifice of their right to privacy for justice. Affirming belief in victims' stories acknowledges the gap between the justice system and justice itself. As citizens, we must acknowledge that our judicial system is not a god; it is not omnipotent, it is not omniscient, and it is not omnipresent , to put it in Judeo-Christian terms. Our system has serious gaps, and I would argue that it is foundationally flawed. One of those gaps is in the case of sexual assault, and our discourse about these cases must acknowledge that gap and privilege the dignity of victims.
A personal anecdote may help illustrate the importance of affirming belief and bestowing dignity for victims. In middle school I became very close to a man who led by Bible study at my church in Raleigh, NC. This man, Douglass Goodrich, was looked up to by all middle and high school students at my church, and he kept a tight circle of "leaders" whom he suggested had a bright future in their respective grades. This leadership circle was coveted, and I was admitted to his personal circle during this time.
I spent a significant amount of time with Doug alone as a middle and high school student. We would drive together to the basketball games that he refereed to discuss "discipleship." He would pick me up from my house and take me out to dinner just to talk. Sometimes I would go to his apartment before church so that I could get feedback on my personal "walk" with Christ. Doug was almost a father figure to me, and I looked up to him for personal advice and valued my private time with him enormously.
Doug was a serial child molester. He molested a significant number of my friends and peers during my time with him. I was devastated by the discovery of his depravity. I didn't really believe it. How could it be? I had spent years getting to know him, and he had developed me as a better Christian and a better person during that time. It didn't compute that someone so seemingly virtuous could do something so awful.
The only reason Doug was caught and convicted was because he was discovered in the act of molesting a child, a rare occurrence for victims of assault. The only reason that I could bring myself to believe is because he was discovered in the act. I don't know if I could have brought myself to believe if that would not have been the case.
Part of my unbelief was rooted in the spectral question: what if it had been me? What if he had chosen me? I had been there in the privacy of his own home regularly over a period of three or four years. If it had been me, would people had believed? In the court of law, it would have been nearly impossible to prove that he would have molested me. My church, which attempted to gloss over the incident and quiet the victims, definitely wouldn't have believed me. My friends, unless they had the same experience, likely wouldn't have believed me because of his reputation. I would have been alone, humiliated, and most likely rejected by the institution in which I placed my identity.
Sympathy for victims of sexual assault is a humanistic imperative. Like I mentioned before, I am not a lawyer, and I have no juridical suggestion. Victims often have no outlet for justice, and believing them is one of the only ways to restore their dignity in a system that denies their humanity and their privacy. Like I tweeted earlier today, to deny the melancholy and trauma that Dr. Ford was put through today in her hearing is to deny her humanity. We must be better about listening to victims, affirming their humanity, and believing their stories. We must, because the legal system most likely will not.
As a brief post script, if you want to know more about how the legal system treats victims of sexual assault from a more scientific and less personal perspective, I highly recommend Cate Bumillers' In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence (2008).