Thursday’s testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford courageously detailed a traumatic experience that all too often survivors of sexual assault keep to themselves out of fear of the negative consequences. In Maine, young people and survivors of sexual assault watched Dr. Ford’s testimony, and the commentary afterwards, and wondered if they would be ignored and silenced, as all too many survivors have been, or if they would be heard and believed.
The FBI investigation that is taking place this week might uncover new details in the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, but as both Democratic and Republican senators admitted, it will not offer a definitive conclusion. What is certain is the message young survivors will face if a judge with questionable character and serious allegations against him is appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Under a culture that has for too long silenced survivors, Maine teenagers are facing incredibly high rates of sexual violence. According to the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, more than 10 percent of high school girls in the state report having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to. Boys too report high levels, with one in eighteen 11th grade boys reporting forced sex.
Maine is unfortunately typical of the country. The National Survey of Family Growth reports that 11 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who had intercourse before the age of 20 had unwanted first sexual encounters. Other studies have found similar rates, with RAINN reporting that the majority of sexual assault victims are under the age of 30, with those between the ages twelve to seventeen making up 15 percent of all victims.
The numbers that exist are of those who have bravely admitted to having been sexually assaulted. But survivors often do not—or cannot—report their experiences. Young people in particular may hesitate to report accounts of sexual assault if there was alcohol involved, if they fear being ignored, if they feel guilt or responsibility, if they worry about the reaction from their parents, or if they have patchy recollection of the assault. In the case of Dr. Ford’s assault, which occurred when she was fifteen, many of these factors were present, and may have contributed to her not reporting her abuse at the time. If we want to reduce sexual assault and empower people to report, young survivors need to be assured that even when these factors exist, they will be believed, and their attacker will face consequences for their actions.
In response to the allegations of sexual abuse made against personnel involved with USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, and USA Taekwondo, Senator Collins and Senator Feinstein worked across party lines on the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act. This important legislation protects survivors and shows that even in a tumultuous and divisive political climate, the Senate can work together to help survivors of sexual assault.
The Senate has a responsibility to think about the long-term consequences that a confirmation of this Supreme Court nominee would have for the young people of Maine. This nomination has surpassed politics and partisanship. Senators on the fence must now decide whether they want to tell Maine’s youth that survivors of sexual assault can be ignored, or that survivors should be believed. When they do, we hope they keep the lives of survivors in mind. Maine’s youth will be watching.