We’re Still Not Listening
Kavanaugh’s confirmation demonstrates our society’s lack of progress in supporting the victims of sexual assault
By Callum Leemkuil-Schuerman
Let’s talk about victims. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has asserted that she is the victim of a sexual assault committed by newly-confirmed Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. According to a YouGov/Huffington Post poll, 28% of Americans believe Dr. Ford is telling the truth.
A complicated fight for victim legitimacy is at the heart of the Kavanaugh controversy. Many on the right, including Kavanaugh himself, have portrayed the hearing as a Democrat-organized smear campaign. Kavanaugh, someone accused by multiple people of sexual assault, has thus endeavored to turn himself into a victim. While this angle has not necessarily been successful at convincing the unconvinced, it has created widespread confusion—roughly a third of those polled said they didn’t have enough information to respond.
The confirmation process has exposed a lot of unpleasant truths about how Americans see and respond to victims. Consider, for example, the general line of the Senate Republicans—raw, bellowing fury against the idea that a woman might demand accountability from them. Or consider the proliferation of right-wing internet conspiracy theories about Dr. Ford: accusations that she was hypnotised, or that she is actually the comedian Amy Schumer under heavy prosthetic makeup.
Even more concerning is the fact that this situation has occurred before in almost exactly the same way. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Soon after, Dr. Anita Hill, a law professor who had previously worked for Clarence Thomas, came forward with explosive allegations of sexual harassment. The allegations did not ultimately alter the outcome of the nomination; Justice Thomas was seated.
What is worrying about this is the degree of cultural stagnation it suggests. From many women’s perspective, it seems that there has been no progress in how high-profile cases of sexual violence against women are dealt with; still the men involved are allowed to ascend to the highest echelons of American power without consequences. Joe Biden, the former Vice President and favorite for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential race, allegedly cut a deal with Senate Republicans that prevented four other witnesses from coming forward who could have corroborated Dr. Hill’s story. Justice Thomas remains on the court to this day.
Stepping away from American political institutions, it is abundantly clear that the same problem persists in American cultural institutions. Many of the significant targets of the Hollywood-focused #MeToo movement have already begun to reenter the public eye. Louis C.K., a comedian accused of sexually assaulting multiple female comedians and then attempting to ruin their careers, has slowly been worming his way back into the limelight. Following allegations of sexual misconduct, the comedian Aziz Ansari has begun reinventing himself as someone opposed to extreme political correctness. Charlie Rose, a TV show host accused of decades of sexual assault and misconduct, has pitched a TV series in which he would interview other famous men who were accused of sexual misconduct.
Lost in all of this are the victims. During the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the repeated line in the New York Times was that Anita Hill acted too “poised” and “dignified” to be a victim, implying that victims must necessarily act meek and timid. During the Kavanaugh hearings, Dr. Ford’s memory was repeatedly called to question in the right-wing press, with a former Bush administration official unveiling a nonsensical and widely-circulated “doppelgänger theory” that hinges upon Ford somehow mixing up the identity of her attacker. This theory was also promoted by the office of Senator Orrin Hatch, who later told female protestors to “grow up” while attempting to shoo them away with his hands.
When Kavanaugh was sworn into office, he acted in a supremely ordinary fashion. He stood with gravitas; he told a small joke. The hearings are already in the distant past. So where does this leave the rest of us? It’s difficult to say, but if the Kavanaugh hearings have demonstrated anything, it is that the battle is nowhere close to being won.