Unless you’ve been living as a hermit in the United States this year, you know that sexual assault and sexual misconduct allegations are coming up left and right against everyone from politicians to CEOs to TV personalities. Judge Brett Kavanaugh is facing similar accusations amid his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Sexual misconduct allegations are being waged against Judge Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
Cristine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University in California, alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Following that accusation made earlier this month, another incident in which a college-aged Kavanaugh exposed himself was also made public.
The White House is responding by backing Kavanaugh and questioning the events detailed by his accusers. This weekend, the White House released a fact sheet titled “What You Need to Know About the Allegations Made in The New Yorker Article on Judge Brett Kavanaugh.” They reference an article published in The New Yorker about the latest accuser, Deborah Ramirez, and her accusation that Kavanaugh exposed himself and made her touch his privates at a party when they were both students at Yale University.
In the White House fact sheet, they bring attention to claims made in the article that the Trump administration finds problematic. These include the “significant gaps” in Ramirez’s memories, which they say were only fully accessed after “consulting with an attorney provided by the Democrats.” The White House questions the credibility of claims that the accuser admitted were uncertain and that were made after consulting potentially politically-motivated parties.
President Trump himself took to Twitter to address the claims:
I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
Problems with the White House Response
President Trump’s comments simplify what is a very complex emotional incident. Like any form of trauma, an individual’s reaction to sexual assault is intensely personal. Feelings of guilt, personal shame, or fault can occur, whether or not the assaulted individual has any culpability in events leading up to the incident. This can be even more pronounced when the individual assaulted feels that the incident is a result, even in part, of their own decision-making.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is one of many organizations that provides guidance to help understand sexual assault and the factors that may contribute to an absent or delayed report.
“Women may not want to report that they were assaulted because it is such a personal experience, because they blame themselves, because they are afraid of how others may react, and because they do not think it is useful to make such a report,” says the VA. These are well-documented reasons for not reporting, with research going back over 20 years. In a 2006 paper published in the Journal of American College Health in which researchers asked college students to rank reasons they would not report a sexual assault, “the barriers rated as the most important were (1) shame, guilt, embarrassment, not wanting friends and family to know; (2) concerns about confidentiality; and (3) fear of not being believed.”
If the allegations are true, that means that Ford and Ramirez, coming forward after years of trying to put it behind them, are incredibly brave women. It also makes the President and White House’s responses incredibly insensitive and problematic.
Questions About the Accusations
The White House raises many legitimate questions about the claims, however. Most notably, the potential influence that Democrats may have had in making these claims public during the confirmation process for a conservative judge.
Ford initially approached Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about the incident in July 2018. The allegations were not made public until Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in September. President Trump and other Republicans argue that the judge’s nomination and hearings played a role in the timing of the accusations.
Feinstein maintains that she did not publicize the allegations because Ford requested that she keep it confidential. She sent a copy of the letter sent to her by Ford to the FBI in mid September and provided the same letter to Congress later in the month.
President Trump has found fault with the delayed release of the letter, saying, “Senator Feinstein and the Democrats held the letter for months, only to release it with a bang after the hearings were OVER—done very purposefully to Obstruct & Resist & Delay. Let her testify, or not, and TAKE THE VOTE!”
The White House fact sheet draws attention to the lack of witnesses to back up the accusations. Ford named Mark Judge, another student and friend of Kavanaugh’s, as a witness to her assault. Judge told officials that he did not remember such an incident and thinks it is outside of Kavanaugh’s character. Friends and classmates of Ramirez and Kavanaugh’s mentioned in the article have differing recollections. Some remember hearing about an incident while others don’t remember the party. Some, including Kavanaugh’s roommates and Ramirez’s best friend that year, maintain that an act like that is completely out of his character and something that they would have known about if it happened.
Kavanaugh maintains that both accusations are false. He plans to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Ford has also agreed to testify at the same hearing.