As someone submersed in fear during childhood and now trained to help others (and myself) move through it, I am continually struck by its power to form our opinions and motivate our actions, almost invisibly.
Fear, like all emotions, is useful. It promotes survival by signaling us to avoid harm. It can even make changes in our body, such as narrowing our field of vision, to help us analyze a potential threat and then release adrenaline to create swift and strong action to protect ourselves.
But when fear flies under the radar, and we are not conscious of what our brain is registering as a threat, it makes us vulnerable rather than safe. It motivates our decisions while leading us to believe our intentions are different and fuels our judgments of others when their stories invite us to face the uncomfortable. In no public discourse is this dynamic more clear than in the conversation that arises when someone powerful is at risk of losing status over an allegation of sexual assault.
On the surface, it may seem the fear surrounding the Kavanaugh allegations is coming from women who are afraid a sexual assault could happen to them, or that they wouldn’t be believed if it did.
It’s not. It’s coming from all of us.
The resistance to believe victims lingers around each allegation because it is fueled not by our beliefs about others but by our haunting questions about ourselves.
What if she’s making it up?
First, the most important word of that sentence is “she.” Why? Because when males are victims, the question is not asked (see Catholic priest scandal). That aside, this doubt is rooted in the deep fear we all hold, often going back to childhood, of being accused of something we did not do. Almost all of us has a story burned in our memory of a consequence we received when our brother/sister/friend skirted their own responsibility by accusing us instead and the powerful people (parents/teachers/coaches) believed them. Out of all the moments from that particular day so long ago, the vast majority of which are long gone in our minds, this one remains clear. Why? As a human race, we are strongly opposed to injustice and deeply afraid we will be the subject of it. The idea that a man could work his entire career to land a place on the highest court of the land, and then lose that opportunity, reminds us all of the fragility of our dreams and the power humans hold to destroy. Resisting the possibility of this happening to another protects our hope it will not happen to us.
But in doing so, we confuse possibility with probability. While it is possible an accuser could come forward with false allegations, it is not probable. One only needs to observe the life of Christine Blasey Ford this week to understand why. After speaking under the context of anonymity, presumably to avoid the precise reaction she is currently experiencing, Ford’s life is now a spectacle for America to analyze. As if the sexual assault itself did not mark her identity enough, she will forever be associated with this scandal. As recently as this month, Monica Lewinski is still struggling to create a sense of herself separate from her connection to Bill Clinton. Once a woman has been sexually “marked” by a powerful man, her identity outside of him no longer exists to the watching world. Combined with the threats that have run her out of her home and the questioning of her integrity, it’s not an experience the average woman would sign up for on purpose. While there are a select few mental health diagnoses that may prompt a woman to create false allegations for the purpose of some ulterior motive, those diagnoses affect such a small portion of the population. As more woman, from the small sample of those who attended parties with Kavanaugh and Judge in high school, continue to come forward, the suggestion that they are fabricating stories becomes less and less probable.
Even if she’s not making it up, it was so long ago.
This excuse is rooted in the fear in all of us that we will be judged not on who we are but on who we used to be. Most of us shudder at the idea that our worst mistakes (especially drunken mistakes) from adolescence would be the determining factor in whether or not we would be selected as a mate or chosen for a promotion. We want credit for our hard-earned growth and feel defensive if the current “us” is judged by the “us” we used to be. If we can only go as far in life as our adolescence permits, we would all be held back from most of what we want to achieve, so erasing Kavanaugh’s helps us all create our own clean slate.
Of course, this is all legitimate. If the mistakes of yesterday define the possibilities of today, we are all without opportunities. However, mistakes do not have to carry forward when they are acknowledged and repaired. Healing starts with taking accountability, making amends, and then learning and practicing a new way. When this process unfolds, mistakes transform from disqualifiers to the soil from which qualifications grow.
Even if she’s not making it up and it did happen so long ago, that’s just what boys do.
No, they don’t.
Even if she’s not making it up and it did happen that long ago, and it shouldn’t have happened, why does that matter now?
At the heart of this question is the fear that continuing to slow processes when allegations surface will keep us stuck. No one wants a constant state of investigation to stall forward movement. However, even when an incident of sexual violence took place in the past, it matters in the past, present, and future.
It matters because even when a victim takes the arduous journey of putting his or her assault in the past and living in the present moment, the past can and does invade the present. Though healthy relationships, sexuality, and parenting is possible for someone who has experienced sexual assault (after a lot of hard work he/she should never have had to do to begin with), a simple glance at the headlines on any given day can bring the pain sweeping into present awareness without being invited. He cannot leave it in his past because she doesn’t get to leave it in hers.
Second, sexual assault is not about sex. It’s not about orgasms for horny teenage boys. It’s about power. If this is a man who has in the past used his privilege to objectify and exploit the vulnerability of another human and is now using that same privilege to prevent those actions from hindering his own advancement, he does not deserve the power vested in a supreme court justice of the United States of America to advocate for and protect those who have been wronged. We have a responsibility to give power to those who use power responsibility and are aware of and attentive to the privilege and bias they bring to that process. If this is not that man, preventing his nomination is not a political tactic but a duty.
As a nation, we need to treat those who come forward with their stories as though they are telling the truth while maintaining awareness that a few don’t, rather than treating women as though they are probably lying while keeping in mind that a few were actually harmed. We need to remove sexual misconduct from our definition of what it means to be a “boy,” not only for the protection of women but also for the dignity of men. And we need to choose, through our words and behavior, that sexual assault never stops mattering, regardless of when it occurred. And then for those who are willing to acknowledge, repair, learn, and change, we need to extend grace.