On Monday, President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women, said of his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, “You look at his life, until this happened, what a change he’s gone through. The trauma for a man who has never had any accusations.”
On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of last week’s hearings on sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, “And you point out I’m a woman, I’m also a mom. I have a daughter and I have two sons. And I think it’s a very, very dangerous place and a very dangerous road for America to go down, to simply take an accusation and make it fact.”
Sanders appears to be saying that she is scared for her sons, who could be accused of sexual assault. But she doesn’t address the dangerous current reality her daughter faces, which is that she could be sexually assaulted, tell no one out of fear for attacks against her, and see her attacker defended by some of the most powerful people in the country.
Donald Trump Jr., who has already mocked the accusations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford on Instagram, went one step further than Sanders and said outright that he is more afraid for his sons than he is for his daughters. In an interview with DailyMail TV, he said, “I’ve got boys, and I’ve got girls. When I see what’s going on right now, it’s scary.”
When asked which of his children he’s most worried about, he said, “Right now, I’d say my sons.”
The common refrain is this: it is more painful to be accused of sexual assault than it is to actually be sexually assaulted.
While Sanders and Trump Jr. are right to worry about their sons, it’s not for the reason they think. Studies show that it’s more likely that men will experience sexual violence themselves than be falsely accused of assaulting someone else.
But it’s not just members of the administration who are spreading the idea that false accusations are a deeper trauma than sexual assault.
During last week’s hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said to Kavanaugh that Ford was “just as much of a victim as you are.” In doing so, he suggested that Kavanaugh is the most obvious victim in this situation, not the woman who said he sexually assaulted her.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said to Kavanaugh during the hearing, “Judge, don’t give up.”
Cornyn later told The New York Times, “He became very emotional as he choked back tears. But I must say, he wasn’t the only one choking back tears during his defense of his good name and his reputation.”
In focusing on the trauma of Kavanaugh, the senators choose to ignore what Ford’s family has experienced since she publicly came forward accusing a very powerful man of sexual assault. She said she is experiencing constant harassment and death threats, her personal information has been released on the internet, her work email has been hacked, and her and her family had to move out their home. These senators ignored her shaky voice during the hearing, as she relived that moment and said, “It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
Kavanaugh himself has certainly portrayed himself as a victim experiencing great trauma.
When Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) first suggested there could be a one-week delay for an FBI investigation, Kavanaugh replied, “You said a week delay, do you realize how long the past 10 days has been?” and said “It has been a lifetime.”
For perspective, at 51, Ford has lived with the trauma of her sexual assault for 70 percent of her life. But the 10 days Kavanaugh experienced — knowing that he may well still be on the U.S. Supreme Court, just as Justice Clarence Thomas did after Anita Hill said he sexually harassed her — have been a lifetime.
It should come as no surprise that the president, White House staff, and U.S. senators are repurposing the language used to describe sexual assault survivors’ pain to focus on the experiences of men accused of sexual assault. For years, Republicans have been fighting against the enforcement of Title IX on college campuses, claiming that the accused do not have due process, even though they are not facing jail time or fines in disciplinary proceedings. Kavanaugh isn’t facing either and yet, calls for due process continue. Last year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with men’s rights activists and a group of mothers of men accused of sexual misconduct on campus. Some of these groups have equated the experience of a man who was falsely accused of rape to that of a rape survivor and say the “right to privacy in family affairs” has been “undermined by domestic violence laws.”
DeVos has described men falsely accused of sexual assault and survivors of sexual assault as having experiences of equal weight and relevance to policy by saying, “All their stories are important.” But she showed whose experiences she really felt for when she said of men falsely accused, “It was clear that their stories are not often told.” On the contrary, stories sympathetic to men accused of sexual violence, whether they were falsely accused or not, are told very often.
Now she’s ready to put in place rules that would make it more difficult for campus sexual assault survivors to report their sexual assaults and easier for those accused of assault to evade any sort of accountability.
In addition to the Trump administration and Republican senators taking every step they can to defend men whose good names they say are under attack, men outside politics have gleefully taken part in the backlash to the outpouring of sexual assault and harassment media reports last year. Men in the media, comedy, and television and film worlds have defended men accused of sexual assault last year and insisted that they have a “second chance” when the people they assaulted, usually women, rarely had a first chance to build their careers. But these men insist on shifting attention to the feelings of men whose work they admire rather than attempting to further understand the damage these men caused to other people’s lives.
After Louis C.K.’s recent return to comedy after women described him masturbating in front of them without their consent, Michael Che said, “[Louis C.K.] can be shamed, humiliated, lose millions of dollars, lose all of his projects, lose the respect of a lot of his fans and peers, and whatever else that comes with what he did, but since he can still do a comedy set for free at a 200 seat club a year later, it means he got off easy.”
Che’s focuses on C.K.’s so-called humiliation but nowhere does he acknowledge that he humiliated the women he exposed himself to or limited their careers. When Che did acknowledge the five women who described his harassment, he said, “I don’t know any of his accusers. I don’t know what he’s done to right that situation, and it’s none of my business.”
After the New York Review of Books published an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, who was accused of sexual assault and other physical assaults, Ian Buruma, then editor of the New York Review of Books, defended the decision to publish his essay. When Slate questioned Buruma about the “numerous allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi, including punching women in the head,” Buruma said, “I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation … The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”
Buruma’s concern was the impact these allegations had on Ghomeshi. Although Buruma is out as editor after the publication of the controversial essay, this accountability is the exception and not the rule. The most powerful people in the country, whether they operate in D.C., New York, or Hollywood are refocusing attention back to where it customarily has been for centuries — the “trauma” lived by men who have lost their good name.