"You're Not on Trial", and Other Lies
By Rosalina Alicea
The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh exposed deep, painful divides in our nation, bringing to the forefront our disparate conceptions of truth and justice. How should systems of oppression be acknowledged in our political proceedings? How do we enact and uphold processes that ensure fair judgement? We here at SKEPTIPOL discuss several of these viewpoints in our new series, Truth vs. Power.
By now, many of us have watched the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. We've observed his eventual path towards confirmation. Our disgust has barely settled. We can no longer look at Judge Kavanaugh and the facial contortions he displayed mid-tantrum. As a wise meme perfectly put it, didn’t anyone tell him that if he kept making that face it might stay that way? During his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh was belligerent in his interruptions and evasive in his responses. Dr. Ford, on the other hand, was a smiling, inspiring force, graceful as she spoke her truth. She endured extensive questioning, retelling and reliving her abuse with the hope of reaching accountability. In his testimony, Kavanaugh stated:
“The onslaught of last-minute allegations does not ring true. I’m not questioning that Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time. But I have never done this. To her or to anyone. That’s not who I am. It is not who I was. I am innocent of this charge.”
According to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, 1 in 2 women, 50%, experience sexual violence other than rape at some point in their lives. Women don’t lie about abuse as much as men say they do. If so many women are sexually assaulted, and the #metoo movement reminds us just how many are, then why doubt any woman?
In his testimony and over the course of his confirmation process, Kavanaugh didn't simply attempt to make a case for his innocence. He went a step further, creating doubt around Ford’s understanding of her own experience. By doing so, Kavanaugh employed one of the most vile tactics an abuser can employ. Abusers get and keep power this way: a victim becomes much more vulnerable when they doubt themselves. In the domestic and sexual violence field, we call this gaslighting. What's terrifying is that abuse isn’t just an interpersonal phenomenon. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s impacted by everything around it, gaining hurricane-like strength and speed by larger systems that condone it. The judicial system is one of these systems. As Kavanaugh and a few Senators repeated during the hearing, credibility in the judicial system relies on many things, among them “corroborated evidence.” But as Ford’s testimony showed us, sexual assault is incredibly hard to prove. Corroborated evidence for sexual assault is oftentimes simply unavailable. Doesn’t it seem counter-intuitive to base a survivor’s credibility off of corroborated evidence when, often, it doesn’t exist?
Abusers are cunning and manipulative. They hide their actions intentionally and strategically, oftentimes with the tacit approval of larger systems. So many survivors do not come forward for this reason.
They are afraid of not being believed. But in the judicial system, if survivors cannot provide proof, their experiences are simply “not true,” and their abusers are not held accountable.
I am a domestic violence advocate. I have spent countless hours working with survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. These are questions our survivors frequently ask themselves: Did it happen the way I think it happened? The way I remember it? Was it really all that bad? Did it even happen? They ask these questions because our most powerful systems, the judicial system among them, fail to hold abusers accountable. This forces survivors to question what they know is true. Halfway through the hearing, Senator Kamala Harris reminded Dr. Ford.
“First of all...you know you are not on trial.” She repeated again. “You are not on trial.” But if Dr. Ford wasn’t on trial, then why did it feel like she was? If she wasn’t on trial, then why were the questions asked by Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor invited by committee Republicans to interview Ford and Kavanaugh, designed to derail Ford’s credibility while the world watched?
It’s a lie that the systems tasked with apprehending abusers actually do so. Instead, they teach us to be abusive. We see this not just in Kavanaugh’s despicable actions, excuses, and confirmation, but in violence against women as a whole. Dr. Ford’s experience is horrific. However, it is not a comprehensive narrative, and it belies larger issues at hand. What’s left out when discussing Ford’s experience is how privilege and oppression impact abuse. Dr. Ford is an educated, cisgender, upper-middle class white woman. Women of color and LGBTQ communities experience sexual and domestic violence at the same or higher rates than their white, heterosexual counterparts. When marginalized populations experience abuse, they are oftentimes much less believed and have less culturally-competent resources to seek out for support. In addition to sexual and domestic violence, queer and transgender people of color deal with racism and homophobia, which makes their experiences of abuse much more destructive, and makes accountability much harder to achieve.
My goal is not to trivialize Dr. Ford’s experience. No one deserves to be manipulated and defamed as she was. But if we cannot help Ford in her efforts for accountability, then how can we as a society help marginalized groups who have countless barriers in being heard? When discussing Ford’s experience, we must keep the experiences of all oppressed people in mind.
We must interrogate the abusiveness of our systems so abusers like Kavanaugh have nothing left to gain.