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A need to confront a culture that abets sexual assault

September 27, 2018

The accusation from professor Christine Blasey Ford that Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school has absorbed the attention of the nation. And for good reason. (Two other accusers have surfaced, and a hearing for Ford and Kavanaugh occurred Thursday.)

But how President Donald Trump reacted to Ford and others demonstrates the need for a renewed understanding of how survivors come to terms with their trauma and how we all have a responsibility to deconstruct beliefs and behaviors that perpetuate rape culture.

One of the president’s tweets in particular showed a lack of understanding and regard for the reality of sexual assault survivors.

The truth is that most sexual assaults do not come to the attention of law enforcement: 63 percent are never reported to police. The insinuation that an assault report may be a false is additionally problematic. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that only between 2 and 10 percent of sexual assaults are false, and that protocols and a lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual assault lead to an inflation of this number.

What is categorized as “false” does not always mean the accuser is untruthful. In other words, the overwhelming majority of cases are truthful.

It is inappropriate also to suggest that a parent is a failure by not knowing the circumstances of an alleged assault. It is quite common for survivors of sexual assault to not disclose what took place to friends, family and even partners. The reporting of this story echoes so many examples of survivors’ accounts: The survivor, after many years of guilt and self-blame, comes to the realization that she was, in fact, sexually assaulted. She then has to make the difficult decision of whether to report the assault, usually after the statute of limitations has expired, or to live with the lasting damage of the assault.

To report the assault is to be subjected to withering scrutiny challenging the veracity and motivation behind the accusation. And, of course, survivors see this treatment and often decide that coming forward is not worth it — and the cycle continues.

In the Kavanaugh case, casting doubt on Ford without first hearing her account and those of others was not only an affront to her, it also created a chilling effect for survivors who see how an accomplished, educated woman is treated.

Why would anyone put herself under that scrutiny?

Those who don’t fully trust a victim who comes forward years later should spend time with, and listen to, the stories of sexual assault survivors. Then they would know that Ford’s experience is replicated all too frequently. More of us should familiarize ourselves with the facts and statistics concerning sexual assault, which would allow us to use our positions in society to speak out and support survivors.

Perhaps as important, this knowledge should inform institutions about how they can work to dismantle rape culture, the attitudes that trivialize sexual violence and blame victims. Comments such as “it was high school” and “boys will be boys” excuse and normalize sexual assault.

The culture will not change simply because those on the outside critique it; it is incumbent on those who are part of it to call into question the values and moral direction that the institution espouses and the reality. Not just in workplaces, civic organizations and government but in our schools and colleges, too.

This is the reality that surrounds us, and our elected officials must be better educated and act responsibly when discussing sexual assault. An apology is unlikely from Trump, but other elected leaders from across the political spectrum need to seize this moment to speak truth to the actuality of sexual assault survivor experiences — and ensure the institutions in which we learn and work are not harboring attitudes that encourage and normalize violence.

Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

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