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27 September 2018

She smiled and tried to please, but it felt like Christine Blasey Ford was on trial

The woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault was everything a victim is supposed to be. Is it enough for her to be believed?

By Helen Lewis

It felt like a trial. But not a trial of Brett Kavanaugh, the Republican nominee to the Supreme Court. It felt like the trial of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her as a teenager.

It also felt like a trial of every woman, of female testimony itself. Blasey Ford is everything a victim is supposed to be – precise, composed, cautious, in a stable job and a stable relationship. She reported the accusation before Kavanaugh was the sole nominee, demonstrating that she wanted to object to him, rather than glue up the appointment of any Republican judge to the nation’s highest court. She is white, a professional, eloquent and smartly dressed. She looked tearful, but didn’t shout or scream or break down. Many survivors watching the hearings will have thought: if they don’t believe her, what hope for the rest of us?

More heartbreakingly, in the first session Blasey Ford was everything a woman is supposed to be. She smiled at the long drizzle of grim-faced male Republicans opposite her. She made self-deprecating comments to the prosecutor chosen to cross-examine her. (In a rare display of self-awareness, the all-male Republican committee members picked a woman to do this job.) She made every effort to be friendly and non-threatening. This is a cultural script inscribed so deep onto our bones it feels like nature. And it was echoed in her story of the assault. She said that Kavanaugh had held her down, his hand over her mouth; when his friend Mark Judge entered the room, “a couple of times I made eye-contact with Mark. I thought he might help me. He did not.”

Why are women, on average, less assertive, less aggressive, less difficult than men? It’s not chromosomes, or hormones. It’s because the only refuge of the powerless is supplication. If you’re in charge, you don’t have to ask nicely. You don’t have to beg. You don’t have to live your life on high alert for the responses of others. The world shapes itself around you.

Kavanaugh will testify later; there are reports already emerging that Donald Trump is furious with the one-sided nature of the live spectacle. (If there is one thing the Reality TV president understands, it’s how such situations look with the sound off.) Anyone with a shred of decency would have stopped the hearings and agreed to a full FBI investigation of the claims immediately, instead of trying to pick holes in Blasey Ford’s account, right there on television. Unfortunately, there is no one near the top of today’s Republican party with a shred of decency. 

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There were a few spots of light in the dark. Several male Democrats took the time to thank Blasey Ford for coming forward. In the New York Times, 1,600 men signed a full-page advert in support of her and Anita Hill, the lawyer who accused another Republican supreme court nominee, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harrassment in 1991. (It echoed the time, 27 years ago, when 1,600 black women signed an advert in support of Hill.) Even on Fox News, a pundit expressed his surprise that the testimony was so believable. 

I support due process. Kavanaugh is entitled to make his defence. But so far that defence has been sketchy, relying on tired old myths about assault that researchers have spent decades debunking. We know that women don’t report, because they fear being disbelieved, they fear reprisals, they fear the process of justice will retraumatise them. Memories do get garbled, but details stick out. And here the details are unforgettable. “They were laughing with each other,” Blasey Ford told the hearing. “I was underneath one of them while the two laughed.”

For me, that was the most chilling moment of the whole sordid spectacle. Her assault wasn’t even about her; it was about two men, and their relationship with each other. Can you imagine being dehumanised like this? Perhaps you don’t have to. Perhaps you never considered it. I struggle to think of a single case where two women have joked as they sexually assaulted a man, purely as a bonding exercise. I struggle to think of a single case where a man has had to recount his assault in public, facing a purse-lipped line of sceptical women, who could withhold from him the power of their belief.

This is the uneven way we have built our world. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, and today I saw good men and women horrified by what they saw. I also saw the partisans for whom every issue is refracted through their political beliefs, and for whom no amount of accusers would be enough. (Since Blasey Ford spoke out, another three women have come forward.) I also saw violence – the force, and threats, and fear, which have kept so many survivors silent. I saw a woman who woke up that morning and had to decide in what clothes she would look most like a rape victim. I saw a group of men making the queasy political calculation of whether it was more damaging to attack her, or not attack her.

I saw, I hope, the past. I never want to see anything like this again. 

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