The drama of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle and decades-old allegations of sexual assault, which has become emblematic of far bigger issues of societal attitudes toward gender equality and sexual violence, reached its climax in the Senate Judiciary Committee appearance of the main accuser, Professor Christine Blasey Ford.
It was a powerful moment — but also a reminder that these issues have no simple answers.
Ford, a psychology professor, was unquestionably a compelling witness with a wrenching story. She said when she was 15 years old, 17-year-old Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge attacked her during a party at a suburban Maryland home, trapping her in a bedroom where Kavanaugh pinned her down on the bed, tried to rip off her clothes, and clamped his hand over her mouth to silence her screams.
She described being terrified that he would accidentally choke her to death. Asked about the most memorable detail of the incident, she said that the laughter of two boys, during the attack and after her escape, was etched indelibly into her mind.
She also said that she was “100% sure” that her attacker was Kavanaugh.
Even many Kavanaugh supporters agreed that she was credible.
And yet credibility is not proof. While it seems extremely improbable that Ford is lying for political reasons, especially given the fact that several people confirm she told them about the attack in the last six years, there are other possibilities besides “she’s a liar” and “it happened exactly as she says.”
There is plenty of scientific evidence that memories, including traumatic memories, are often edited and reconstructed by the human mind. Mistaken identity remains a slim but real possibility. (A number of men convicted of rape on the basis of mistaken victim identification were later exonerated by DNA evidence.)
It’s also possible that, as some have argued on social media, the incident may have been a nasty prank by two drunk boys who wanted to scare a girl for fun, and that some details were exaggerated in Ford’s recollection by trauma and fear — a scenario that doesn’t make Kavanaugh look good but falls short of attempted rape.
Is there any way to sort out the facts more than 35 year later — especially given the very real possibility that the teenage Kavanaugh may have done something in a drunken state that he does not recall? It seems clear that the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee blundered badly by not calling witnesses, including Judge (who gave a sworn statement denying any memory of the incident but has not been questioned under oath).
One thing that seems clear: The abuse heaped on the Republicans for selecting Phoenix prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to handle the questioning was off the mark. Critics assumed that Mitchell’s role would be to treat Ford as the person on trial. Yet one could just as easily argue that giving the task to a sex-crimes prosecutor, who would normally conduct a victim’s direct examination, bolstered Ford’s status as a survivor.
Mitchell was sympathetic, did not challenge Ford’s account of sexual assault, and actually suggested that a thorough investigation was called for. The only time she acted as a cross-examiner was in raising questions about the specifics of how Ford came forward.
Ford’s testimony has been both a painful and an inspiring moment for many who have struggled with the trauma of sexual assault. Yet this day also raises uncomfortable questions about how an innocent man could defend himself against an accusation that can be neither proved nor disproved.
One thing seems certain: For all the rhetoric about women being disenfranchised and marginalized in modern-day America, the Kavanaugh fiasco proves the opposite. We have seen that a woman’s accusation can derail a seemingly certain Supreme Court confirmation: Even if Kavanaugh does survive, he will be tarnished forever. And we have seen the male Senate Republicans literally hide behind a woman in their attempt to contain the damage.