For five years, I was a rape crisis counselor, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Boston. I met survivors of sexual assault in the hospital emergency room immediately after their attacks to try to provide them a safe place, and inform them of treatment options and support services.
I would hold their hands through the excruciating forensic exam that collected evidence of their attack. I would sit with them while they reported their stories to the police. And I took hundreds, perhaps thousands, of calls from survivors in the middle of the night on our 24-7 hotline to offer strategies to manage their anxieties and fears.
There are cases I can never forget:
- The little girl who was raped by a man in an alley while the man’s own daughter was sleeping in her car seat within arm’s reach.
- The homeless woman who had to choose between undergoing the lengthy forensic exam (a critical step to prosecute the perpetrator) or keeping her spot in a women’s shelter on that icy night.
- The child who didn’t really know she was raped until several days passed – because she was too young to know was sex was.
- The survivor who told me she was conceived when someone raped her mother.
- The gentle college grad whose longtime friend decided to have his way with her.
- The woman whose rapist received a call from his wife midway through the assault and blithely sent the call to voicemail.
I witnessed changes that ensued in the lives of survivors. The woods were no longer a solace for one because the trees were silent as he held her down. For another, his family is no longer a refuge because his mom and dad couldn’t fathom that their priest could do those things. Sleep is no longer restful for another survivor because the smell of her perpetrator seems it will suffocate her. And for some survivors, their bodies no longer feel clean because no matter how hard they scrub, they just can’t wash the touch away.
Rape crisis counselors witness these horrors, which occur every few minutes, every day, in every corner of the United States. Rape doesn’t discriminate: It happens to young and old, male and female, rich and poor, conservative and progressive. When we counselors take our on-call shifts, we wait by our phones knowing we’ll soon be called, knowing another person’s life is about to be derailed. And we know that even if the survivors opt for the invasive, lengthy, and painful forensic exam, their evidence kit might never be processed, since most states don’t prioritize the funding. We know, too, that only six perpetrators in 1,000 will be incarcerated.
Members of your Senate Judiciary Committee are deciding now whether to approve the Supreme Court nomination of a man accused of engaging in such attacks. Many of the senators have demonstrated a disinterest in uncovering the truth.
What is unfolding now in your committee is a second assault on our nation’s survivors ― an assault by public officials as they raise doubt, attempt to shame the brave women who share their suffering, and work to minimize the survivors’ stories.
So, I urge all Judiciary Committee members:
Do not brush aside Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony.
Do not disengage from reports by Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick, or others who may choose to come forward. These reports are not just anecdotes from the past; they mirror the agonizing, ever-present burden carried by millions of survivors in this country. How we respond to these stories is a direct reflection of how much we value the lives of all survivors.
Forcing Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination would be a clear signal that our nation’s leaders are disinterested in the integrity of the men who sit on our highest court. Each senator has thousands of constituents who have been sexually assaulted. Rushing Kavanaugh’s confirmation is letting them know that their trauma isn’t worthy of consideration.
Each senator also has thousands, even millions, of young male constituents. Forcing the nomination implicitly affirms the “boys will be boys” mentality and accepts that “telling dirty jokes” and “drinking too much” eventually metastasize into “boys will rape girls and get away with it.”
So I ask this of Judiciary Committee members: Listen carefully to Thursday’s testimony. Withhold your judgement until all the relevant facts have been collected. Carefully consider the morals of those who may represent us on the nation’s highest court.
It’s well past time that we listen to those who have been abused and attacked, support them through their trauma, take action to hold their perpetrators accountable, and change societal norms to decrease future assaults. It’s well past time that we send a firm signal that perpetrators (whether adults or adolescents) are accountable for horrific actions. Now is the time for our nation’s leaders to stand firm on the values of empathy, compassion and justice as it relates to Kavanaugh’s nomination.
And, since I have your attention, once this nomination process has concluded, it’s well past time for you to ensure accountability within your own walls by establishing strict rules for sexual harassment claims within Congress. Also, I’ll ask that you hold our nation’s perpetrators accountable by earmarking funding to process the thousands of rape kits that are decomposing in warehouses. And finally, I ask that you use your voice to help change societal norms that blame survivors while giving perpetrators a pass.
Lori Bruce is the director of the Sherwin B. Nuland Summer Institute in Bioethics at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. These views are hers and not those of her institution.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.