The fight for survivors’ rights when the system favors the perpetrator

Chantelle Leswell ’20J | Staff Writer

From that dreaded moment in the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, survivors of sexual trauma have been in a state of bereavement — of raw, unadulterated pain — as they saw election results prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their voices and their experiences didn’t matter.

Donald Trump — a man who, himself, has been accused of sexual misconduct at least 19 times — is a figurehead of corruption and violence against women in this day and age. It’s not totally surprising that his Supreme Court Justice nominee was accused of sexual assault and attempted rape in recent weeks.

Christine Blasey Ford, an esteemed scholar and psychologist, alleged that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party when they were in high school, and will likely testify later this week. Her treatment by many powerful people in politics, including Trump himself, as well as Kavanaugh “allies” across the country, leaves much to be desired; many offering up heard-before and redundant arguments for why she must be making it up.

Surprisingly, many across the board are also supporting her. Her case is inspiring what looks like a new wave of the Me Too movement, with #WhyIDidntReport circulating social media last week. In many ways, her case is reminiscent of Anita Hill’s, which took place almost 27 years ago to this day, except Anita Hill spoke out in a time where sexual violence was rarely challenged, and she received significantly less support than we have been seeing for Dr. Ford.

The political smearing of Anita Hill after she accused a man who still holds a seat in the Supreme Court of sexual harassment in the workplace sent an all-too-clear message that still reverberates through our society today. Men in power can, and will, continue to abuse minorities because the system they uphold will protect them. Her tenacity shone through as she told her story, directly leading to institutional change for people who have faced sexual misconduct — all while her character was defamed, her career was threatened and her trauma was erased.

While Ford and Hill are both revered academics who have a better chance than most at being considered credible, race cannot be left out of the conversation.

Hill, a Black woman, faced immeasurable difficulty as the media and general public (on both sides of the political spectrum) effectively crucified her. David Brock deliberately painted her — in his own words — as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” to disparage her credibility, and it’s almost impossible not to hear the intonations of Black women tropes underpinning his comments.

Arguably, we have come a long way since then in the fight for justice around sexual violence, especially in the past year. The Me Too movement is really the first time we’ve seen such widespread collective action around sexual violence, and it is continuing to gain momentum. Though the movement really gained credence in the wake of the Weinstein accusations last year, its roots lie with Tarana Burke, a Black social activist who began using the phrase in 2006 to empower and show solidarity with women of color who had experienced sexual violence. Through the work of people like Burke, we are starting to see greater change, and I believe we could be on the brink of a revolution for survivors’ rights.

That doesn’t mean that it will happen without a fight. People in power thrive as a direct result of subjugating others. We are now witnessing the latest manifestation of a war against women, taking the form of disbelieving survivors and shaming them into silence in order to maintain increasingly fragile hierarchies.

It’s important to note that even though we’ve come so far, figures from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s official website suggests that only six in every 1000 rapists are prosecuted. For many of us, this is old news, but it doesn’t make it any less traumatic and disempowering each time another predator’s face is brandished like a weapon by every major news outlet for weeks at a time; it only adds insult to injury when they face no consequences.

It’s easy to feel defeated in this climate, but we’ve already made such great headway and at breakneck speed. I also take comfort in remembering that self-care and kindness are incredibly radical acts when the world feels inhospitable.

In saying this, one of the best ways you can empower yourself and your communities right now is to vote: elect marginalized people; elect people who will make marginalized perspectives heard to effect positive change.

I also believe that staying engaged in any way you can is key: mobilize if you can, educate yourself and seek out new perspectives. For example, Jackson Katz, a gender-equality activist and educator, will be speaking at UMass on Oct. 2, and he offers an insightful take on the role of male allies in the liberation of women.