The real litmus test of whether our society cares about sexual abuse is how we respond when the allegations are against someone in our community. We have failed that test.
Just a few days ago, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to take his seat on the highest court of our land. A contentious hearing followed Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teenager, and the impact of his confirmation will extend far beyond the decisions he may make while seated.
The entire process hit a little too close to home. I’m a sexual assault survivor who was forced to take a very public stand against a prominent abuser — Larry Nassar. I’m also an evangelical with primarily conservative political positions.
My religious community applauded me for standing against Nassar and his enablers while, in the same breath, condemned me for speaking against religious institutions that mishandled abuse. My knowledge of the law and dynamics of abuse were welcomed when it impacted the “secular” world of Michigan State University, and discounted completely when I expressed concerns about prominent religious leaders in my own church.
More often than not, we are only willing to support survivors so long as their allegations don’t impinge on our community, its members, or our overall goals. But as soon as it’s someone from our own tribe — when it actually costs us to care — the verbal and mental contortions ensue to explain why this allegation of abuse is “different.”
The comfort of condemning sexual abusers outside of one’s own tribe
This level of community protectionism was on display again in the way that so many conservatives and Republicans responded to the sexual assault and misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh, which he has denied.
We do not even need to reach any final determinations about Ford’s claims to realize that the response she received from Kavanaugh’s political community was devastating. Immediate accusations of fabricating her story, wanting attention, or lying for political gain, while the responses to the evidence she brought with her — most importantly, prior disclosures of the abuse to a therapist and her husband — were discounted.
On the flip side, the “evidence” wielded against Ford, such as gaps in her memory, was easily explainable by anyone who understands the impact of trauma and normal victim responses to sexual assault. At a minimum, what Republicans were, and were not, willing to accept as evidence was not based in any informed understanding of sexual abuse, or even consistent with past stances we’ve taken for others who alleged abuse by our own political “opponents.”
Both sides have been guilty of this. Democrats have made the same excuses as Republicans when survivors spoke up against Bill Clinton with sexual assault and misconduct allegations years ago. It’s so much easier to unequivocally condemn abuse until doing so would require speaking out against one’s own candidate.
At the end of the day, survivors suffer
I’m continually struck at how isolating being a survivor is. Had I had the misfortune of being abused by someone in my own “conservative community,” the support I currently have from many in that realm would not only dissipate, but transform into vitriolic attacks. In fact, my statements criticizing the conservative response to Ford was enough to receive substantial backlash from former supporters. Survivors everywhere, myself included, were reminded that support for sexual assault survivors extends only so far as it doesn’t endanger our supporter’s community.
This problem is not unique to politics. I have experienced it in former churches, when I was praised in one breath for the stand against enablers at MSU and USA Gymnastics, and condemned for speaking out against religious organizations that have also been credibly accused of mishandling reports of childhood sexual abuse. I have been attacked by fans of other universities that have had similar scandals, by Democrats and Republicans at varying points in time, by close friends and complete strangers, anytime someone in their own community, be it political, religious, athletic or otherwise, was the focus.
But the fact that all groups have this response is no excuse for what is happening now. Whether another community acts rightly is no excuse for our decision not to, and like I tell my own young children, “You are responsible for your behavior, and your behavior alone.” Right now, as a conservative, I am distressed about the behavior of my side of the aisle. Because it’s not that hard to respond properly to allegations of sexual assault. We simply need to realize it matters, then act like it.
While the right way to respond isn’t that difficult, the wrong response is devastating. I know what it is like to be the teenage survivor watching the way the world around me treated sexual assault survivors who spoke up.
In our rush to get a conservative nominee, we have forgotten that there are hundreds of other survivors out there who are now the teenage survivor I once was. Who have heard, “It doesn’t matter what someone did years ago.” Who have seen a woman vilified, attacked, and even subjected to death threats after making an allegation of abuse. The impact of sending that message across our country is greater and more devastating than we will ever know, because we have silenced the voices that would otherwise tell us.
Soon it will be another community faced with the choice of how to respond to an allegation against “one of their own,” and what message they will send to survivors everywhere. But this time it was the conservative community that had to make that choice, and it was not done well. So to my community, and every community, I echo the words I said during the Nassar sentencing hearings, to the communities that didn’t listen to reports against my abuser: “Do it better the next time.”
Rachael Denhollander is a lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Find her on Twitter @r_denhollander.