In a series of tweets, President Trump lashed out on Friday against Christine Blasey Ford and her family, crystallizing why so many victims of sexual assault suffer in silence.
“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,” tweeted Trump. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
There is nothing surprising nor last minute about Ford’s accusation that she was assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh at a high school party in 1982. The steps that she has taken reflect an understanding of the terrifying road she embarked upon by coming forward about the Supreme Court nominee, privately this summer and publicaly now. It is also an example of the way in which institutions weave a protective webbing against potential smears on their image — then and now.
Women do not tell their stories because they can’t. In research for my upcoming book, and in the training I do, I have spoken to countless women who shared their painful stories and grieved for their silenced voice. They understood that silence is the fuel that perpetuates bad conduct, but reporting that conduct would be weaponized against them in the form of character assassination, shaming, and disbelief. We see that unfold today, as Ford and her family face death threats and are forced to leave their home.
Ford’s silence in 1982 is as logical as it is tragic. Elite private institutions have long protected their status over their students. Consider Chessy Prout who, as a freshman at St. Paul’s School, was sexually assaulted by a senior as part of a tradition where males compete for sexual encounters with younger students. In refusing to be silenced, Chessy was re-victimized by friends who shunned her and by fundraising efforts among alumni and students for her attacker’s defense.
The “Senior Salute” has been demonstrated to be part of a more pervasive problem at St. Paul’s. An independent investigation identified faculty and staff alleged to have sexually abused students over a period of decades.
An investigation of Philips Exeter Academy revealed multiple instances of sexual abuse by staff as well as peers that spanned multiple decades and included separate record-keeping systems that kept confidential information out of HR files. How can students possibly feel it is safe to report assaults by their peers when the institution ignores the behavior of the staff entrusted to protect them?
The prestigious Hotchkiss School in Connecticut uncovered decades of ignored sexual misconduct, including a teacher who, when found with a student in a motel room, received a one-year suspension and was terminated more than a dozen years and who-knows-how-many victims later. The school physician — who astonishingly worked there between 1972 and 2005 — was found to have performed unnecessary gynecological exams and have children disrobe without reason.
Three years ago, Kavanaugh began a speech by observing: “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.” That quote speaks volumes about what any student who breaks the code of silence would face.
The following things can all be true. Kavanaugh can be a smart and kind jurist who has hired many female clerks and has treated them well. It can also be true that he sexually assaulted a student in high school at a party. Whether a high school assault, or his current response to that allegation, disqualifies elevation to the Supreme Court requires a clear-headed answer to this question: What are we willing to overlook in assessing fitness for a position in which character and judgment are crucial?
We have answered this question with far greater harshness when confronted by youthful offenses committed by those who were not lucky enough to attend the institutions that cushion and guide the privileged. The next step in this process is to see whether Congress treats Ford as a survivor or a liar. That decision will have the greatest impact on whether future victims will ever feel safe reporting what has happened to them.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is the author of the upcoming book, “The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.”