Kavanaugh Controversy Rekindles Pain For Sexual Assault Survivors

Doubts, disbelief, mockery, hell: The tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh is triggering an outpouring of suffering ― and healing.
Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, said Brett Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her down, groped her, tried to undress her and covered her mouth when they were in high school in 1982.
Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, said Brett Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her down, groped her, tried to undress her and covered her mouth when they were in high school in 1982.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

For nearly nine hours, Danielle Doby sat on her parents’ couch and watched with the rest of the country as Christine Blasey Ford recounted the night she said she was assaulted, and as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh defended his name.

Doby, a 33-year-old from Dallas, chose to watch Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing from her parents’ house instead of her own because it’s a place she feels safe.

There, she could cry without judgment, listen carefully to Ford and Kavanaugh, and watch as senators cast doubt on the whole thing. There, she could also face the inevitable: She could recall memories of her own sexual assault without being completely alone.

“Whenever she started crying, I would tear up,” Doby said of Ford during an interview.

“Especially when she was trying to recall details. In my brain, I automatically went to a space of, ‘What do you remember about your night?’ I just kept replaying it over and over again.”

Doby isn’t the only one being revisited by painful memories amid the Kavanaugh controversy as the nominee’s accusers speak out about his alleged misconduct.

In the days that followed the hearing, the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 338 percent increase in calls. Social media feeds flooded with people sharing stories of being abused or harassed, many paired with the reasons they didn’t report it.

Forced Into Trauma ― Again

People are being re-traumatized as the battle for Kavanaugh’s nomination plays out, according to counseling psychology professor Britney Brinkman.

The brain stores traumatic memories much differently than it would regular ones, Brinkman said. So, when Ford describes details such as Kavanaugh’s “uproarious laughter,” survivors find themselves face-to-face with their own traumatic event.

“Often people either feel like they’re reliving the experience or they might feel like they are reliving the fear that they felt. It can be really overwhelming,” Brinkman told HuffPost.

This is especially true for those who suffer from an assault-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

“For people whose experience is similar ― maybe it happened in high school or at a party ― even one detail could feel really triggering from them, making them cry or feel like they can’t get out of bed,” Brinkman said.

Katie Fisher, 23, from Terre Haute, Indiana, said she had a “rush” of memories during Ford’s testimony, causing her to burst into tears.

She later tweeted why she felt so ashamed to tell anyone about her assault at the time, and how Ford gave her the courage to speak up now.

“I felt connected to this woman ... and I felt the shame and the guilt all over again,” Fisher said after watching Ford’s testimony.

“I remembered not being able to be in the same room with [with my attacker]. And I remembered being so scared. But I look at this powerful woman putting her life and reputation on the line and I felt courage.”

The outpouring of sexual assault stories, though triggering, may also have an upside.

More survivors will know they aren’t the only ones who are struggling and will be inspired to seek help. Brinkman said the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape center, where she is a board member, has received more calls and inquiries from people looking for “various levels of support.”

Something similar happened in late 2017, when numerous sexual assault allegations led to the downfall of film mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men across nearly every industry. At the end of that year, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reported a record number of people reaching out for help.

It’s a sign that “people are coming out in solidarity” in support of survivors, Brinkman said.

“Even one detail could feel really triggering [for survivors], making them cry or feel like they can’t get out of bed.”

- Britney Brinkman, counseling psychology professor, on survivors with PTSD
At times, demonstrators became emotional as they protested Kavanaugh's nomination outside of last week's hearing in Washington D.C.
At times, demonstrators became emotional as they protested Kavanaugh's nomination outside of last week's hearing in Washington D.C.
JOSE LUIS MAGANA via Getty Images

When The President Doesn’t Believe You

There’s a downside, too. The way Republicans are openly dismissing Ford’s allegation ― going as far as making a joke of her ― is especially painful for survivors still struggling to understand their assaults.

During a campaign rally in Mississippi on Tuesday, President Donald Trump mocked Ford for not remembering certain details of the assault, drawing rebukes from Republicans and Democrats alike.

When Doby heard Trump’s rant, she turned off the TV.

“The belief that in order for sexual assault to be found credible, a victim must be able to recall every detail of their experience, is not only ignorant, it’s extremely dangerous,” Doby said.

“His mockery, accompanied by his followers’ laughter, just dismissed my story as a victim and gave permission to abusers as if their actions hold no consequence.”

Kavanaugh has repeatedly denied the accusations against him by Ford and two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick. Ford said during last week’s hearing that she is “100-percent” certain it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her when they were high school students.

At a campaign rally in Mississippi, President Donald Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford's emotional testimony and his supporters laughed.
At a campaign rally in Mississippi, President Donald Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford's emotional testimony and his supporters laughed.
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

It’s not just Trump’s behavior, either. Trump’s supporters laughed and cheered as he mocked a survivor of sexual assault. On Twitter, people were especially drawn to the women holding Trump signs in the background of his televised performance.

Trump’s attitude toward women and survivors of sexual assault doesn’t appear to shake the loyalty of his female supporters ― just like when they remained steadfast as Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” recording surfaced.

Republicans in general were unmoved by Ford’s testimony. A poll by Quinnipiac University conducted after last week’s hearing showed that Republican men and women overwhelmingly support Kavanaugh as a nominee, according to The Associated Press.

Brinkman said she worries the GOP’s reaction to Kavanaugh’s accusers may scare other survivors from dealing with their assaults.

“One of my concerns is 15-year-olds right now seeing this and seeing her being questioned aggressively and told that people don’t believe her,” Brinkman said.

“They’re more likely to think, ‘Well, no one is going to believe me either so why would I step forward. Why would I report? If I do report, how am I going to be treated?’”

What About False Reports?

One popular reason Republicans push back on survivors is false reporting. As the #BelieveHer hashtag in support of survivors picked up steam, so did #ProtectOurBoys, which conservatives use to denounce assault claims they say are fake.

Brinkman and other advocates against sexual violence argue that the rates of false reports are small, comparable with false reporting in other crimes. Brinkman also pointed out that the majority of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

Only 2 percent to 8 percent of sexual violence is falsely reported, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And, of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 310 are reported to the police, according to RAINN.

Brinkman said she sees a stark contrast in how female survivors are treated compared with male survivors, like the men who came forward to speak out against the sexual abuse by 301 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania.

“The tone and the narrative about those survivors have been very different,” she said. “Culturally, I think our tone has been much more of one of believing those boys ― they’re grown men now ― affirming them that it wasn’t their fault.”

Meanwhile, Brinkman noted, Kavanaugh’s accusers are being dragged through the mud by Republicans.

“We need to believe women who are telling us they were assaulted by famous men and we need to believe boys who are telling us they were assaulted by their priests,” she said.

Making Space For Survivors’ Truths

As Doby watched Ford’s Senate testimony, she had flashbacks of the night she was raped at a hotel party when she was 16.

Like Ford, Doby can only remember certain details. She can’t tell you the name of the hotel, or how she got home. But she can describe the heavy breaths of her attacker, how he carried her away from a hot tub, and how she cried under the stream of a shower.

The stories of sexual assault told by Ford and Doby aren’t unreliable just because they can’t remember certain things, experts said. In fact, those gaps are consistent with the way the brain processes trauma.

Jim Hopper, a Harvard Medical School researcher who studies sexual assault’s effects on the brain, told Time magazine that chemicals in the brain cause it to focus on the most important details of a traumatic event, while “peripheral details are lost.”

While painful to watch, Ford’s testimony encouraged Doby to publicly share the entire story of her attack for the first time. She did it because she wants other survivors to know that it’s OK if they can’t remember every single detail.

“This is exactly what I remember. I don’t have proof. I don’t have all the details. But that doesn’t make my truth any less valid ― and [Ford’s] either,” Doby said.

As the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh continues to play out, Brinkman said it’s important for everyone to realize that survivors are having an especially difficult time, and to give them the space they need to heal.

For Doby, that meant sharing her own story.

“Every time I speak up for myself about what happened to me, I grow a little stronger and a little braver,” Doby added. “I think we all do when sharing our truth.”

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