When the 45th President of the United States says that it is a “very scary time for young men in America,” he is blatantly discounting the fact that it is always a very scary time for women – young and old – in America. I have more than 100 students in my anthropology classes this semester, and the reality is that nearly 25 percent of them will experience sexual violence before they graduate.
In the general population, 1 out of every 6 women will survive rape or attempted rape. LGBTQ women experience sexual violence at an even higher rate; more than half of transgender women of color will survive sexual assault during a lifetime that will be, on average, only 35 years long. The RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) website reports in large, dominating letters that every 98 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.
In a culture where sexual violence against women is this pervasive (and embedded in places like the high schools of potential U.S. Supreme Court members), it doesn’t matter if these women are our daughters, sisters, or wives: it matters that being a woman – any woman – comes with a very real, very tangible risk.
A risk that is not just “scary,” but one that shapes our lives.
Most of us don’t remember where or when we picked up certain tricks, but many of us carry our keys between our fingers in case we need to defend ourselves while walking to the car. We’ve learned somewhere along the way to look under our cars and in the back seats before we get in; we rarely, if ever, get in an elevator by ourselves with a man or group of men we don’t know. We have all, at some point, called a friend on a walk home so that someone knows where we are, and listens with us for danger as we walk alone.
These are ways that, every day, every woman in America acknowledges and mitigates – as best we can – the risk of sexual violence we face simply for being women.
Ways that men mitigate the risk of sexual violence? They don’t, because for the most part, they don’t have to. Scary, indeed.
Years ago, when I first started teaching at VCU, one of my undergrads asked me to sign a pledge to Start by Believing. At the time, it didn’t seem all that profound to me: it seemed logical pledging to simply believe women when they reported surviving sexual violence. But since then, as students have come through my classes, I’ve found myself in more than one situation looking in tear-filled eyes and saying, before all other things, “I believe you.” And each time I say it, the reality becomes more stark: despite statistics that clearly show women in America are at risk, the default seems to be that when they report their experiences, they are questioned and ultimately doubted.
“What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Were you walking home in the dark by yourself?”
Patriarchy is a deep and profound thing.
The net result of this doubt is that only 20 percent of undergraduate survivors report their assaults. For non-student survivors, nearly 2 out of every 3 assaults go unreported. Their reasons? Fear of retaliation from the perpetrator, and law enforcement’s disinterest or inability to help.
And what we watched, as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judicial Committee, is this same tragedy playing out in a very national and public way.
For those who think college kids or millennials today aren’t engaged in a national conversation, I counter with this: students listened on their phones to Dr. Ford’s testimony in the hallway between classes, and asked me to finish lecturing early so we could watch together as a class. They gathered in a conference room on campus to watch the hearing with allies. They turned to each other, turned to me, and said, “I believe her.”
They witnessed, with the same gnawing fear and disquiet in their stomachs, as man after man on the committee told Dr. Ford some version of their doubt in her story. Doubt in her ability to remember, doubt in her ability to judge what makes assault assault.
Her reasons for not coming forward were questioned by the leader of our country in a tweet on September 21: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
The resulting stories from survivors use the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. They are swift, profound, and brutal. During her testimony and in the following days, RAINN saw a 338% increase in traffic on their sexual assault hotline. This is evidence, according to RAINN president Scott Berkowitz, that Dr. Ford’s “story has clearly resonated with survivors, and has led thousands to reach out for help for the first time.”
The President would like us to focus on the fear of false accusations, or on criminalization of the “boys will be boys” mentality. But statistics tell us that of all assaults reported, only 2% are found to be false. The President – accused of sexual violence by more than a dozen women – has also mocked Dr. Ford and her testimony, which fuels the belief of women across the country that our experiences do not matter. It fuels the belief that, even in raising our voices to the most prominent leaders of our country, we will not be heard.
Dr. Ford has likely spent her entire academic career being talked over by male colleagues, so in that sense, the hearing was nothing new. Having young women look to her as a role model is likely not new either.
The conversation we are seeing on the national stage – of a smart, credible, accomplished woman being mocked by the president for reporting her sexual assault – is being heard by every woman in the country.
It’s heard by women who may think to themselves, “If a professor of psychology isn’t believed, why would anyone believe me?” It’s heard by more women who have kept their assaults quiet for decades, and by women who do not remember all the details – and one result could be that all of these women see the writing on the wall, and simply continue to say nothing.
Yet, by speaking out, Dr. Ford has done something for women in this country that we perhaps didn’t know we needed. In this moment, women are finding voices that they didn’t know they had, courage from places deeply buried. Another American will be sexually assaulted every 98 seconds until we, as a country, dismantle the power structure and language that believes the accused over the survivors. Starting, sadly, at the very top.
I believe you. And if you are a survivor of sexual violence, I encourage you to call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.