No matter where in the world you were on 28 September, the Senate hearing of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was likely broadcast live on a screen near you. In my office in Washington DC, you could hardly find a cubicle where C-SPAN was not playing from at least three separate screens. Earphones plugged in, disbelief in our eyes, the entire nation witnessed Dr. Ford’s mind-boggling bravery as she testified about her experience of sexual assault at the hands of the accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
We also watched as Brett Kavanaugh made his defence statement, tearful and temperamental, claiming his life had been “totally destroyed” and describing the allegations against him as a Democrat power grab, even a Clinton revenge conspiracy.
The contrast between the two could not have been clearer. Dr. Ford remained composed and polite, despite having to relive her trauma in front of the whole world and clearly being under immense emotional stress. She did not yell, she did not interrupt anyone, she laughed at jokes. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, presented a highly volatile response. Seemingly struggling to control himself, he shouted random words, interrupted and talked back to senators questioning him, and often broke into barely held back sobs.
It is rare to see a clearer display of the different rules that the justice process places on different genders. If Dr. Ford had behaved like Kavanaugh – something she would have had ample and understandable motivation to do – she would instantly have been discredited as hysterical and unreliable. For Kavanaugh, as a white powerful man among white powerful men, anger is instead a tool for legitimacy.
The OHCHR has highlighted how judicial stereotyping and gendered expectations leads to fewer convictions in cases of gender-based violence and is a serious barrier to women’s access to justice as well as to judicial integrity and impartiality as a whole. Even though this hearing was essentially a job interview, not a trial, the old familiar dynamic was laid stark and bare.
Women’s limited access to justice, particularly in cases of sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence, is a global issue. This week in Scotland, Conservative MSP Miles Briggs was ‘cleared’ of sexual harassment allegations made by a female worker from another party. Rape Crisis Scotland called attention to how the ‘intimidating and inappropriate’ investigation process gave the woman no real access to justice. She was first asked to attend a hearing without representation to be questioned by Miles Briggs himself. After RCS raised complaints, the Conservative chairman offered to cross-examine her using Briggs’s questions. Under such adversarial conditions, RCS could not advise the woman to attend her own hearing. On both sides of the pond, this week has shown how the justice process actively works against survivors. #WhyIDidn’tReport showcased even more examples from all around the world.
Anyone watching today might also have noticed gendered differences in the responses to the testimonies of both parties. Senator Graham (R-SC) was allowed an irate rant about the supposedly partisan motivations behind the allegations, while Senator Klobuchar (D-Minn.) had to smile as Kavanaugh asking her if she had a drinking problem. Testimonies from across the nation showed how Dr. Ford’s raw account of her experiences brought up memories of women’s own experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Callers felt compelled to tell the media about incidents spanning decades. I felt as I did almost exactly a year ago when #MeToo first erupted, reliving my own experiences, adding them to an endlessly growing pile along with my friends and almost every other woman on the planet.
It is exhausting and unacceptable that survivors have to go through this collective trauma again and again, just to push back even just a little against some of the most powerful men in the world. Just as last year, it is also a historic moment to come together and demand better. The Women’s March protest events that have been running throughout the week in DC and beyond have kept me sane and reminded me of the power of collective action against mighty injustices. Whatever the outcome of this hearing, this momentum will not be stopped.
If you are in need of support, there are several organisations that offer help for survivors in the UK: Rape Crisis England & Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland, Women’s Aid UK, Women’s Resource Centre, Scottish Women’s Rights Centre.