Last week, professor and research psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify at length, detailing her allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 35 years ago. Attempting to conceal her terror before cameras and an audience of predominantly male senators, Ford painstakingly recounted the traumatic experience of being barricaded in a room as Kavanaugh pinned her down, covered her mouth and attempted to forcibly undress her while his friend looked on at a high school party in 1982. After being asked to identify her most vivid memory of the ordeal, Dr. Ford offered a simple yet powerful response: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter…the uproarious laughter between the two. They’re having fun at my expense.”
Having studied the human mind for decades, Ford knows a lot about the hippocampus, a structure in the brain responsible for regulating emotions and consolidating memory. As she puts it, “Trauma-related experience is locked there… other memories just drift.”
The trauma sexual assault survivors face can stay with them for a lifetime. It’s not uncommon for survivors, over time, to be able to move on, build families, redefine themselves and maybe even begin to speak up after their experience as Ford has: But, sexual assault could remain a part of them forever.
According to Mental Health America, sexual assault survivors are at an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and substance abuse habits.
If Kavanaugh did, in fact, assault Ford, it’s entirely possible that he is being honest about having no memory of what he did to Ford. Sexual violence against women has long been such a normalized part of our culture that one in five women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, but even so, the vast majority of survivors will never report. Faced with no consequences for their actions, the majority of perpetrators are repeat offenders. A culture without accountability for those who hurt — those who abuse and instill lifelong trauma in their victims — is one in which sexual assault is normalized and so trivialized to the point where it can be entirely forgettable to the abusers.
Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies last week, along with the national attention, scrutiny and backlash Ford has shouldered, have opened up the scars of survivors across the country. The cruel treatment of Ford by some of the most powerful men in the country has elucidated exactly why so many survivors don’t report their experiences. The treatment of a woman, who has already endured so much punishment for what she alleges happened to her is now being handled as a criminal subject by senators. Ford has experienced social ostracism, academic struggles, time in therapy, marital problems and, most recently, death threats and being forced to move out of her house throughout this ordeal. This is a reminder to survivors of the backlash they may face upon coming forward.
In the last week, the National Sexual Assault hotline saw a 201 percent increase in calls as survivors watched their worst fears and lived experiences play out before the eyes of the nation. They were told by the president and leading U.S. senators that if they did not immediately report their experiences to law enforcement, despite how many survivors cite fear of intimidation and blame from police as a reason they don’t report, then they are not credible. They were called “con-artists” by the most powerful man in the nation at a press conference last week. All of this hatred and cruelty, after all that they’ve already suffered, fell on their shoulders. Given the trauma they’ve already experienced, that’s not right.
At this time, the burden of speaking up, standing up and declaring unequivocally that what’s happening is unacceptable and unjust can’t fall solely on the shoulders of women and survivors. As a man who has never experienced sexual assault, I can only try to imagine the pain, trauma and isolation survivors have felt throughout their journeys — certainly while watching what’s happening. But I understand my moral obligation to stand with them, and refuse to subject them to the cruelty of going through this alone.
As Ford could attest as a decorated psychology professor and researcher of trauma-related issues, the impact of sexual assault on mental health is deep and long-lasting. We can no longer allow manipulative, dangerous narratives that portray men accused of sexual assault as victims to distract from the traumatic harm that sexual assault subjects survivors to. We have to take her powerful testimony and brave choice to speak before the nation as a lesson: Coming forward is often a thankless, dangerous experience for survivors, who typically sacrifice their mental health and comfort to support others. We cannot force them to go through this alone.
Ryan Fawwaz is a sophomore majoring in journalism. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.