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“Kavanaugh was a teenager,” but so was Ford: why her allegations matter

An expert explains the enduring impact of sexual assault in high school.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Since Christine Blasey Ford came forward to say that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school, some have argued that an accusation from Kavanaugh’s adolescence should have no bearing on his confirmation to the Supreme Court.

The nominee “was a teenager at the time,” writes Jonathan Zimmerman at USA Today. “Of course he was different then; he was a third of the age he is now. And teens do stupid, dangerous and destructive things.”

Kavanaugh has denied the allegation “categorically and unequivocally.”

Somewhat lost in the debate, however, has been the question of how sexual assault at a young age affects survivors. Regardless of how much Kavanaugh may have changed since high school, Ford says her experience in the early 1980s affected her for decades, even impacting her 2002 marriage to her husband. Some argue that whatever Kavanaugh did, it’s in the past now — but for Ford, the experience was very much present for a very long time.

To get some perspective on the long-term impact of the kind of experience Ford describes, Vox spoke with Jess Davidson, the executive director of End Rape on Campus. Davidson spoke about the effects of sexual assault on young people, what America owes Ford now, and the potential political impact of the Senate’s choices in the coming days. As she put it, “survivors are watching.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Anna North

Ford says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. What kinds of effects can survivors feel when they experience something like that at that age?

Jess Davidson

Sexual violence in high school is something that does not receive enough coverage or conversation, and it’s something that is experienced by many high school students. Online, a lot of people who experienced violence in high school are talking about the trauma that this has brought up for them — being sexually assaulted so young, and how they really felt that they had to keep quiet, that there wasn’t a safe place. They didn’t have a college campus Title IX office or a workplace Title VII complaint that they could make, and just like any sexual violence, it can be significantly traumatic.

It can result in PTSD; it can result in lifelong issues with intimacy and trust. But I don’t want to make it sound like people who experience violence at a young age are defined by it for their entire lives. There’s a lot of nuance here.

Anna North

With that nuance in mind, can you talk about how long the effects of sexual violence can persist when someone is attacked at a young age?

Jess Davidson

Experiencing any kind of sexual violence at any age can result in long-term impacts on mental health. We know that students who experience sexual violence are more likely to have trouble with keeping up in school, to experience anxiety, depression, PTSD, difficulty focusing. We also know that the help that somebody receives when they first come forward about the sexual violence they’ve experienced has long-term impacts on how much help they will seek out and receive in the future.

We know that a lot of young people struggle to adequately support survivors sometimes. There are a lot of young people who want to support their friends and who want to do the right thing, but they maybe don’t have the language or don’t know how to navigate when one friend commits violence against another friend. And we know that that can increase the impacts of PTSD and trauma.

Anna North

Ford says she was assaulted in the early 1980s. What was awareness around issues of sexual assault like at that time?

Jess Davidson

We had nowhere near the kind of education and awareness that we have today. I have been following and talking to a lot of survivor advocates who experienced assault in the 1980s — many of them experienced assault when they were in high school or college, and all of them have stated that back then, you just didn’t talk about it.

When I came forward as a survivor in 2016, I received similar comments from people from older generations, that this was just something that happens when you go to college or when you’re partying in high school. It was seen as an accepted cost of participating in weekend recreational activity, and that is absolutely unacceptable and leads to self-blame for victims, victim-blaming for people who aren’t survivors, and internalized rape culture.

Everyone who’s saying, “Why didn’t she come forward earlier? Why did she hold on to this for so long?” is really steeped in that rape culture, and doesn’t understand the cost of coming forward — for a survivor now, and the extraordinary circumstances under which Ms. Ford has had to come forward, and in the 1980s, when people would say, “Well, it’s not that big of a deal,” or, “That’s just boys being boys.”

Anna North

Some people have been saying that allegations about Kavanaugh’s actions in high school shouldn’t have bearing on his confirmation now. What’s your response to that?

Jess Davidson

His decision in [Garza v. Hargan, in which Kavanaugh argued that rather than allowing an unauthorized immigrant teenager to get an abortion while under federal care, the government could make her wait until she could be released to an immigration sponsor] shows that Judge Kavanaugh thinks that our decisions in our teenage years matter, and that people should be held accountable for them, and I believe that he should be held accountable for his actions as well.

The Supreme Court makes critical decisions for survivors who need access to birth control and abortion, which are health care that survivors need. We have cases under workplace harassment, Title IX, that could come to the Supreme Court over the next couple of years; and at the very least, for those decisions to be decided fairly, we can’t have people who have committed sexual violence sitting on the deciding court.

This is a slight departure but, I think, relevant and important: one in every four US voters is a survivor of sexual violence, and more than half know a survivor of sexual violence. To focus on the political expediency of getting a conservative on the Court is not a wise political choice, because survivors are watching. Survivors are paying attention to the actions that the Senate takes right now. And survivors will be turning out and voting.

Anna North

Now that Ford has come forward, what kind of support and response would you like to see for her as a survivor?

Jess Davidson

One of the things that was really striking and painful for me to read was that Ms. Ford felt that she had no other option other than to come forward, because of the way that her story was being changed or misrepresented. No survivor should ever have to come forward if it’s not unequivocally what they want to do for themselves. So I hope that the path forward is whatever Ms. Ford wants it to be. I hope that if she wants to testify, that she has the opportunity to, and I hope that if she wants to say, “I’ve said my piece and I would like to not be bothered,” that that will be respected. What’s most important to me is that Ms. Ford has the opportunity for healing and justice and redemption, however she defines it.

There is a way to take this seriously and to look into Judge Kavanaugh’s actions without putting an unfair burden on the survivor. For everybody who has said over the past year that they support the #MeToo movement, that they support survivors, that they want to make it safe for people to come forward, now is the time for them to put their money where their mouth is and show support by respecting her wishes, whatever they are.

Anna North

What is the best way to take this seriously without putting an unfair burden on Ford?

Jess Davidson

I can’t speculate on what options are being considered by senators. [There’s a] broader public responsibility here for people to call their senators and ask their senators to look into this, but to not call for Ms. Ford to be required to testify in Congress.

It’s really important that everyone in the American public thinks very carefully about what they’re saying on this issue and what they’re saying about Ms. Ford and her timing and whether or not they believe her, knowing that survivors are reading their words. They may not know that close people in their lives are survivors — their siblings, their mothers, their friends, their partners — and so every time anybody speaks about this issue, I hope that they speak like a survivor’s listening, because it’s very likely that they are.