The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States has dominated headlines in the last week due to allegations of sexual assault brought forward by Christine Blasey Ford. Even as Kavanaugh vehemently denies the allegations made against him, and President Trump openly mocks her allegations, what makes her heroic testimony so important for survivors of sexual assault in Canada and beyond?
Ford’s willingness to come forward and break her silence as a survivor teaches us an inspiring lesson about tenacity in the face of public adversity, as well as the hurdles that many survivors must overcome to share their stories. In an era of unprecedented visibility for survivors, it is important now—more than ever—to listen to survivors whenever they are ready to share their stories.
Why Did Dr. Ford Wait So Long to Come Forward?
Many of the questions/concerns voiced about Dr. Ford’s allegations center around why it took so long for her to disclose an incident that happened decades ago during her and Kavanaugh’s teenage years.
In addition to public skepticism, Ford was openly questioned by Republican Senators regarding the credibility of her disclosure during and after her September 27th testimony.
Ford was also accused of being part of a calculated effort by the Democratic Party to undermine Kavanaugh’s nomination to a lifetime position to the United States’ highest court on the eve of his confirmation hearing.
As survivor advocates, we believe that the questioning the allegations against Kavanaugh based on Ford’s decades of waiting is a gross injustice and discrediting of her experience as a survivor. Professional support workers—as well as survivors themselves—know very well that:
- Sexual abuse survivors often carry debilitating shame and guilt for the rest of the life, driving them to silence for a considerable amount of time after an incident of sexual assault.
- As such, it is not unusual for it to take years, even decades, before a sexual assault survivor may be prepared to come forward and disclose what happened to them.
- Only 3 to 5 percent of incidents of sexual assault are ever reported, and less than 1 percent of assailants are ever held accountable for their actions.
- The majority of sexual assault survivors NEVER disclose what happened to them.
Are Dr. Ford’s Allegations Credible?
Professionals who work with survivors of sexual abuse often look for certain factors to assist in determining credibility of allegations, including:
- What is motivating the disclosure? Some have argued that Ford’s disclosure has been a ploy to undermine Kavanaugh’s nomination. Ford attempted to remain anonymous, but her identity was unfairly disclosed to journalists, who began to visit her home to question her and her family. Instead of remaining anonymous, however, she chose to come forward on behalf of survivors everywhere.
- Where there any prior disclosures? Ford first disclosed her experience to a therapist in 2012, and had made formal and informal disclosures since. In Canada, survivors most often disclosed for the first time to friends [72 percent] and family [41 percent].
- In the case of Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh, at least two other survivors have since come forward with their own allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.
- Are there any corroborating witnesses or evidence? The evidence thus far examined in the Kavanaugh hearing (such as calendars and statements from other survivors and a former college roommate) has been subject to much scrutiny from both Democratic and Republican members of the US Senate.
Many people are confused about the different levels of proof required when a sexual assault allegation is made. In criminal matters, for example, sexual assault allegations must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In civil claims for compensation for sexual assault, there is a lower burden of proof. These claims must instead be proven “on the balance of probabilities.” different levels of proof required in a an allegation of sexual assault allegation is made
For more information on the levels of proof required in Canadian sexual assault allegations, please view our Burden of Proof in Sexual Abuse guide and frequently asked questions.
Why haven’t Criminal Charges been Laid?
Police usually investigate crimes based on complaints they receive. To our knowledge, Dr. Ford did not make a complaint to the police. At times police can open investigations without a complaint being made to them if facts come to their attention that a crime has been committed. It remains to be seen what, if any, criminal investigations take place that may lead to charges. The current FBI investigation is not a routine criminal investigation but rather is part of a background check of a nominee for appointment to the US Supreme Court. The FBI has been ordered to examine “current credible allegations,” as well as to interview a specific list of witnesses, thanks to pushes made by citizens and US Senators supportive of Ford and her story.
There has been a great deal of confusion about whether criminal charges can even be brought against Brett Kavanaugh after 31 years. In many states in the US, statutes of limitations prescribe a certain number of years during which the State can prosecute an individual for criminal acts and after that period has expired, no charges can be laid. This applies to crimes of sexual assault. The situation is quite different in Canada where there is no limitation period applicable to serious criminal offenses such as sexual assault. In Canada, charges can be laid at any time. Some US States, however, such as Maryland, where Dr. Ford says the sexual assault on her by Brett Kavanaugh took place, have abolished limitation periods. So Bret Kavanaugh could still be prosecuted in Maryland today for a sexual assault that took place in 1982. Many Americans, and Canadians too are awaiting the outcome of the FBI investigation and where it may lead.
Need More Information?
It can be incredibly difficult for sexual abuse survivors to talk about what happened to them. Whether it stems from the trauma of the incident, a fear of retaliation or a sense of deep shame that the abuse ever occurred in the first place, pain and anxiety following sexual abuse can create a silence that lasts a lifetime and traps survivors in their most painful memories.
The best way to support a sexual assault survivor who has confided their story to you is to simply believe them. Survivors may be confiding in you a story they have kept to themselves for years—perhaps even decades—and it is an incredibly stressful experience for them to relive their trauma as they recount this story to you. It takes an incredible amount of trust for a survivor to tell you their story—do not make them feel foolish for doing so.
But remaining silent protects the abusers and those that enabled them. With 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males reporting sexual abuse before age 17, ending the cycle of abuse starts with one thing—speaking up.
That’s why we wrote Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims. We hope that by reading our resource guide, abuse survivors can learn about their legal options confidentially, within the privacy of their homes. Seeking help for yourself—and helping others—starts with breaking the silence.