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Sexual assault testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing triggers trauma, reports

Demonstrators protest against Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court inside the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, September 28, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators protested against Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination.

The political became personal for many this week, as Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of sexual assault reopened old wounds for other victims — including two women who dramatically confronted a key US senator Friday in a Capitol elevator.

The two pressed Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, about the message he’d be sending victims like themselves if he voted to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after hearing Ford’s claim that he sexually assaulted her.

“You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t matter!” Maria Gallagher told Flake.

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A visibly shaken Flake later called for the Senate to delay the Kavanaugh confirmation vote by a week to allow for an FBI investigation.

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The exchange, captured live on CNN, was one of many to illustrate the profound effect Ford’s testimony is having on victims of sexual assault, as they speak out — often angrily — about still not being heard or believed.

A Seattle woman took to Twitter to accuse a state senator, by name, of raping her 11 years earlier. “If it’s bad that Blasey Ford waited to raise this until Kavanaugh got to the highest levels of government, then maybe the rest of us shouldn’t sit on our secrets just crossing our fingers that they won’t come into more power,” she wrote. The senator denied the allegation.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 201 percent increase in calls on Thursday, said Sara McGovern, press secretary for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization.

“We often see an uptick when sexual assault is in the news,” McGovern said in an e-mail. Last weekend’s calls were up 57 percent over the average Friday to Sunday, she said. And since Ford went public with her allegations, the hotline has seen 46 percent more calls compared with the same time period in 2017, she said.

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Calls to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s hotline were up about 50 percent Thursday and Friday, said executive director Gina Scaramella. By 11 a.m. Friday, the hotline had logged as many calls as it would in an average full day.

Not all callers are victims; some are family members or even nurses and guidance counselors looking for tips on how to support those they know who have been attacked. And more women than usual are asking: “I waited a long time to report. Are people going to judge me?”

Some doubted Ford’s story because she had not previously reported the assault, which she said happened in the 1980s. But in the wake of her revelation, other survivors with long-buried stories began divulging their secrets for the first time.

Ana Maria Archila, the second woman who confronted Flake, told The New York Times that she’d never before told her parents of her assault, at 5 years old. “It was Dr. Ford’s story that allowed me to tell this secret to my parents,” she said.

Two aspects to the hearing were particularly distressing to survivors, said Scaramella. First, that Kavanaugh, with his indignant assertion that he was being falsely accused by a liberal conspiracy, became the victim.

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Second, she said, was the fear that Ford’s testimony would not matter because the sides were so politically dug in and Kavanaugh’s confirmation seemed a foregone conclusion. That sense was sharpened because Ford has a country-club upbringing and an academic pedigree, said Scaramella. “That’s profoundly chilling to survivors because most people have a lot of shame and doubt about everything and have a hard time . . . talking about what happened,” she said. “To see her going through all that with all the resources she has and still, it doesn’t matter?”

That may have changed on Friday, though, after Flake’s encounter with the two women in the Capitol. Flake, considered one of a handful of swing votes on the confirmation, had said early in the day that he would vote for Kavanaugh. But by the time of the committee vote, he made clear he would not follow up with support of Kavanaugh on the floor of the Senate unless the committee requested an FBI investigation into the allegations raised against the nominee.

Many Senate Republicans had been arguing, like Kavanaugh himself, that the late-breaking allegation is a political maneuver by desperate Democrats who withheld Ford’s allegation until a vote was imminent for maximum effect. But women’s advocates have focused on the personal — emphasizing the impact that Ford alleges Kavanaugh had on her life, and the message that would be sent if the Senate dismisses her.

By day’s end, Republicans had acquiesced to the FBI investigation they had resisted throughout the hearing and President Trump had endorsed it.

Expect many more impassioned pleas from women and victims in the week ahead. Saturday in Washington, D.C., women are converging for the March for Black Women and the March for Survivors — events that had already been planned and whose featured speakers, by video, include the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, and the woman who last testified to the Judiciary Committee about alleged sexual misconduct by a Supreme Court nominee, Anita Hill.

Among the fights they will take up is a push for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which expires Sunday (though a continuing resolution will extend funding through Dec. 7).

Enacted in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act funds social service programs for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence and led to the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It has been reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and 2013 and expanded to cover dating violence and stalking, provide legal assistance to victims, and direct federal funding to rape crisis centers.

In the runup to the midterm elections, Senate Republican leaders had been negotiating with the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, a group that includes civil rights organizations and advocates, about the terms of the reauthorization bill. But those talks broke down due to the committee’s handling of Ford’s allegation, the group said in a recent letter, which cited “grave concerns” for the way Ford was being treated, even before the hearing.

“Senate Republicans cannot profess to be an ardent supporter of the VAWA and then turn around and mistreat survivors of sexual and domestic violence in the way that we have witnessed the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and the additional survivors who have come forward to tell their stories,” said Lisalyn R. Jacobs, the director of victims’ services and policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime. “We do not want to be window dressing. We don’t want to be used. And we don’t want to be engaged in discussions with people where we have to hold our nose and ignore what we hear them saying in the press about survivors.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert
@globe.com
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