Hearings force sexual assault talk

Now that Brett Kavanaugh is a United States Supreme Court Justice, we need to take an honest look at the issue that engulfed his confirmation. Each of us has our own opinion about whether Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Dr. Christine Ford when she was 15 as she claims. None of us know all the facts surrounding her accusation and those of two other women, so nothing will be served by continuing that debate. The Senate voted, Republicans prevailed, and Kavanaugh is now a member of the court. Let’s move past that for now.

The greatest issue revealed over the past two weeks is not what allegedly happened 35 years ago, but how Americans reacted to the claim of sexual assault and what those reactions showed about the lack of knowledge and understanding about sexual assault and its aftermath, as well as the partisanship that divides our country.

We should acknowledge the fact that, like all crimes, sometimes false reports of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are created by people who pretend to be victims for various reasons. A recent study that researched 10 years of crimes in America found that about 2 percent of reports of sexual assault proved to be false claims. Many conservatives claim, without evidence, that the three women’s allegations were falsely created for political purposes.

The study also shows that nearly 98 percent of the time reports of sexual assaults and abuse are substantiated as true, although there is not always enough evidence to arrest the offender or to convict the accused. Often there is physical proof that the victim was assaulted, but not enough evidence to identify the assailant or to convict a suspect. Many cases of sexual assault are just the word of the accuser against the word of the accused, as in the case of Ford’s word against Kananaugh’s.

What disturbed me most about the debate surrounding the accusations of sexual assault were the attitudes displayed by many people that sexual assault is not a serious crime. The comments ranged from “boys will be boys” to “it was just a little touching” to the mother who told her two teenage daughters in a television interview that it was “a normal part of life” and that there was “nothing wrong with a little teenage groping.”

Let’s be clear: Holding someone down and pressing your hand against their mouth to muffle their screams while you sexually grope them and try to tear off their clothes is not normal and is definitely wrong. It horrifies me to think that any woman would raise their daughters to believe it is “normal” to have that happen to you, or to raise their sons to think they have to assault a girl to be a normal boy.

A man recently told me that he knew Dr. Ford was lying because she could not remember some details about the time and place of the alleged assault. He said that his ex-wife has been assaulted and remembered every detail. This man believed that every victim was exactly like his ex-wife, and that if they did not react exactly as she did then they were lying. But traumatic events affect people differently, and each person copes with trauma in their own way. I wonder how many people actually can remember every detail of a tragedy 35 years later. I know that I don’t.

The most skepticism about the assault claim was generated by the fact that Ford told nobody about it for 29 years, until she told a therapist she went to for counseling in 2012. But the truth is that a majority of sexual assault victims never report the abuse and many never tell anybody it happened. There are many explanations for that, with shame, fear, and embarrassment being the most often mentioned reasons for keeping the abuse a secret.

One positive thing about the firestorm surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation is that women (and men) by the hundreds of thousands are finally speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault. There are some estimations that at least 85 percent of females have experienced some form of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault in their lives and that perhaps 35 percent of males have as well. I suspect it might be even higher.

I encourage everyone to talk about this difficult subject more openly with those you love. Tell them about any experience you have had with sexual abuse, and ask about their own. Like any form of evil, sexual abuse thrives when it is hidden in the darkness of secrecy. Shining the light of truth on it will allow victims to know they are not alone, that it was not their fault, that it is not a normal occurrence and that it is not acceptable. Sexual assault and its devastating effects are all too pervasive in American culture, as well as all over the world. To even begin to put an end to it, we first have to openly admit the enormity of the problem.

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Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.

Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.