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Compassion in discussions about sexual assault

October 19, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Writing well about sexual assault is both extremely difficult and critically important. Every piece tangentially related to assault sends a message to survivors, whether the author intends to or not. The culture around assault and the treatment of survivors is one factor in whether or not they choose to report their assault. This is one reason I am saddened by Theo de Quillacq’s article, “I am Brett Kavanaugh.” His treatment of women and of survivors sends a deeply troubling message to them.

The article pushes direct discussion of sexual assault to the periphery, yet de Quilliacq references assault throughout the article. I could replace “sexual assault” with “theft” and the article would not change—but it should. Sexual assault is not just a one-time crime. It impacts the survivor far after the event. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford installed a second front door in her home, decades after high school, because, still struggling with anxiety and PTSD, she wanted an escape route. Survivors have different responses to their assault, but just a few potential side-effects are difficulty sleeping and eating, hyper awareness of surroundings and high base levels of anxiety. Writing about an accusation of sexual assault without context assumes that it is like any other crime. But it is not. Writing about it as if it is furthers a dangerous assumption for readers and survivors.

Depending on study set-up and the definition of false vs. unfounded, the number of false accusations is between two and 10 percent, approximately the same as other violent crimes. However, the difference is that far fewer sexual assaults—between 30 and 35 percent—are reported to the police compared with other violent crimes. In those cases that are reported, most assailants go unpunished, breaking down the argument that scores of innocent men’s lives are ruined by a single accusation. Thus, sexual assault must be discussed with an understanding of the magnitude of unreported assaults and the disincentives of reporting. In reporting, survivors risk reliving publicly their trauma and potentially putting themselves physically at risk again if their assailant walks free. De Quillacq not only brushes over this, but he treats women and survivors without compassion and fails to acknowledge the harsh reality of their traumas.

The lack of empathy in the article when discussing this serious issue starts at the very beginning. The quotations around “believe women” are syntactically not required. They question survivors’ validity and, without context, add a tone of scorn and spite. He implies that hysteria governed the testimony rather than evidence. Using hysteria to describe women is inappropriate and demeaning. Hysteria is defined as overwhelming emotional excess. Derived from the Greek word for uterus, hysteria was a psychological condition with which only women were diagnosed. Historically, women in power or women outside of traditional gender roles were diagnosed with hysteria as a means of control and assertion of male authority. Using this word with respect to this trial is cruel to Dr. Blasey Ford. It dismisses her pain through the historical precedent of dismissing women’s experiences as over-emotional and excessive. These are just two instances, but throughout the piece, De Quillacq shows no compassion for survivors—whether for Dr. Ford or the readers themselves.

Most assaults are not reported, and most assaults that are reported are true. We should talk about sexual assault with that understanding and with a resulting compassion. Without that necessary context, we perpetuate an environment hostile to survivors coming forward. We want to build a culture where it is safe for survivors to report, even when protecting the rights of the accused. Let’s not use quotation marks to doubt survivors, call them hysterical or fail to put accusations in context of the system and statistics. Survivors are faced with impossible questions in deciding whether to report—in part because of the culture surrounding sexual assault. Write with empathy—you never know who is reading—and we may change that culture.

Laura Petto is a member of the class of 2015.

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