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Kavanaugh and the unchanging narrative of sympathy for perpetrators

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In mid-September, the news broke that a woman, who we’d learn was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, was alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her when they both were in high school. The public’s reaction since that news has been a mixed bag, ranging from accusations that she is a pawn of the liberal agenda to the rallying support that culminated in the September 24 #BelieveSurvivors walkout. No matter the speculation about her motivations for coming forward, however, it seems undeniable that, likely thanks to the #MeToo movement, Dr. Blasey Ford herself has largely been seen as credible, which in turn appears to be a sign of cultural progress. Yet the public narrative that has been maintained about perpetrators has not progressed in tandem with this evolved view of survivors, creating a paradoxical depiction and understanding of Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford.

The narrative of Dr. Blasey Ford’s credibility seemed solidified over the past week most notably in that the people who have the least motivation to respect Blasey Ford’s credibility — i.e., Trump and all members and supporters of the GOP — attacked Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusation as a conveniently timed liberal conspiracy rather than attacking her as a liar. Trump initially placed the blame on the party rather than attack Blasey Ford (though he recently changed course in a speech in Mississippi), and even Senator Lindsey Graham’s outbreak at Kavanaugh’s hearing didn’t target the accuser; Graham framed Blasey Ford as the victim of a liberal agenda rather than as an agent of discord herself. “I hope the American people can see through this sham,” he said last Thursday. “That you [Democrats] knew about it and you held it. You had no intention of protecting Dr. Blasey Ford; none. She’s as much of a victim as you [Kavanaugh] are.”

Yet at the same time that the public upholds this credibility, many people express sympathy for the toll her credible accusations have taken on Kavanaugh’s family. For example, on the September 19 episode of The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, host Michael Barbaro said, “I was so struck by the quotes from the friends of Dr. Blasey saying that this was her worst nightmare, and then I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is probably his [Kavanaugh’s] worst nightmare too.’” Peter Barker, who covers the White House for The New York Times, added about Kavanaugh, “He’s got a wife, he’s got two kids, and his name is being dragged through the mud.” Such sympathies expressed for Kavanaugh are indicative of the courteousness that has historically been exhibited toward men accused of abuse — sympathy that does not seem warranted by the same people who believe he committed the crime Dr. Blasey Ford has described.

Of course, this is hardly the first high-profile incident of an alleged perpetrator benefiting from a public reaction of empathy. When Brock Turner, a student at Stanford University, was charged with rape, the media often referred to him as a “Stanford swimmer,” identifying him by his accomplishments rather than the reason he was in the news at all: for being an accused perpetrator. Other reactions included considering Turner’s career in swimming, and his future in general, as dissuading factors from his accuser receiving justice. The same worry about future career and livelihood was not applied to Turner’s victim, as it is not applied generally to sexual assault survivors, who are likely to suffer from trauma for the rest of their lives. Perpetuating a narrative of sympathy for those accused of sexual assault feeds into a toxic narrative that further discourages women from coming forward. What’s more, this sympathy can often turn into backlash against an accuser: Dr. Blasey Ford has quite literally received death threats for coming forward and making these accusations. She has had to hire private security to protect her and her family.

Ultimately, what many debates about this alleged assault come down to is not even whether or not this assault happened, but whether or not Kavanaugh “deserves” to lose a Supreme Court seat as a result of his violent actions as a 17-year-old. Even a violent attempted rape doesn’t seem a crime worthy of the penance of not being appointed to the highest court in the land. As Representative Kevin Cramer of North Dakota put it in a recent interview with Valley News Live, "Even if it's all true, does it disqualify him? It certainly means that he did something really bad 36 years ago, but does it disqualify him from the Supreme Court?" Cramer continued, adding that while what Dr. Blasey Ford describes was “tragic” and "should never happen in our society...what if 36 years of a record where there’s nothing like that again?" Cramer is not alone in this view. Megan McArdle, a reporter for The Washington Post, tweeted “I wouldn't disqualify anyone from higher office because of anything they had done as a minor.” The disregard for these horrific actions, the view that they are irrelevant to this nomination, is widespread.

While a lot of progress has been made in the last year, thanks in no small part to the #MeToo movement, it’s important to be critical of this progress. Simply adjusting one facet of how our culture talks or thinks about sexual assault is not enough. The case of Dr. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh shows us that while not immediately attacking the credibility of women when they come forward is certainly an important step in the right direction, we must also alter the way we think about perpetrators. The polite, seemingly harmless, sympathy for abusers and their families only fuels the same oppressive and repressive forces that make coming forward about assault hard to begin with.



More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Politics
More articles by Tag: Criminal justice, Elections, Rape, Sexualized violence, Supreme Court
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Lauren Davidson
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