Students, survivors discuss the impact of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings

Attendees of the Oct. 9 Survivor Speak Out rally, organized by Action for Sexual Assault Prevention, write notes in support of sexual assault survivors. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

In the aftermath of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s subsequent confirmation to the Supreme Court, Tufts students shared how this emotional process impacted them.

Junior Celia Bottger noted that while she was upset to hear Ford accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault, she was ultimately unsurprised by it considering the many similar testimonies shared by women in recent months.

“When I first heard that there was a woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, I was very unsurprised,” Bottger said. “I mean, obviously, I was disgusted and upset, but these men who are in positions of power usually have, in my opinion, a string of women that they’ve victimized. They’ve only gotten to that place of power because of a lot of people that they’ve used in the past.”

Bottger explained that she followed the hearing process very closely, “obsessively” checking the news for updates, in part because it reminded her of her own experience with certain men.

“I think I was so interested in following the Kavanaugh hearings because I went to high school with a lot of people that could become Kavanaugh,” she said. “It just hit very close to home, which is why I think a lot of people felt very invested in it and felt very shattered when he was confirmed.”

Another junior, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Daily about her experience witnessing the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings as a survivor of sexual assault. She noted that, at first, she tried to disengage from the media onslaught surrounding the hearings, knowing that following it closely would make her very upset.

“I felt like I was getting slammed in the face with Kavanaugh all of the time, and I very much avoided the media,” the student said. “I had five people text me on that Thursday that [Dr. Ford] was taking the stand like, ‘I’m here for you, I support you and love you. I hope you are doing okay — today is really hard,’ and I was like, ‘Why? What’s so hard about this?’ I knew that [this happened] because I had been intentionally disengaging from this because I knew I was going to get very upset. Then they texted me … and I engaged with it, and it felt very devastating.”

She described how the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings stirred up traumatic memories from her own healing process.

“I think talking with other survivors, a lot of triggers started happening,” the student said. “A lot of people, in their healing journey after assault, maybe they work through their triggers … and then something like this brings it all back up. And then you start having triggers that you haven’t had for two years. That was happening to me — I was having very awful physical triggers of my own assaults, and that was terrible.”

These triggers were amplified by the high-profile nature of the hearings, as she watched political leaders and citizens alike brutally attack another survivor’s narrative.

“I was really thinking about what would it look like … if, in 30 years, my perpetrator was going to be on the Supreme Court. What would they ask him? What parts of my story would fail? How would I be villainized? What would happen to me, as a woman of color, [since] this white woman already had to move out of her house and was sent death threats: What would happen to me?” the student said. “And that’s a very terrifying thought, to think about all of the flaws in your story when you are constantly told … ‘It’s not your fault, you are believed, it happened, none of this is on you, someone did this to you, it’s not your fault.’”

She described the challenge of going through her daily routine, like going to class, after the hearings.

“You don’t want to tell your professors. It’s weird to say something in the news affected me so much that I might start crying in class,” she said.

Hope Freeman, director of the LGBT Center, discussed coping with trauma inflicted by recent events.

“There has been an onslaught of troubling and frightening news in the past few months and sometimes it feels very hard to manage; with the victim blaming and shaming out of the Kavanaugh hearings, to the constant policing of black bodies, to the constant attempts from the current administration determined to erase trans and non-binary people from the narrative,” Freeman told the Daily in an email.

Freeman added that the LGBT Center strives to ensure that people who are going through intense trauma feel visible. She noted that sexual assault affects every survivor differently and that it is important to make people with different identities and experiences feel seen and supported.

“What we try to do is let students know that we see them, we will fight for them, and we will hold space for them,” Freeman said. “The LGBT Center’s Facebook [page] is very active in posting articles, resources, and events that affirm various identities with a focus on LGBT experiences.”

She emphasized that sexual assault impacts members of LGBTQ communities, as well, and that it can be very difficult for people who hold these identities to feel legitimate in their narratives when sexual assault is defined from a heteronormative viewpoint.

“When we talk about survivors, we have to be mindful that they can hold various gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations,” Freeman said. “We want to be sure we are not looking at the survivor story through a heterosexist lens, that erases queer, trans, and non-binary stories.”

Junior Isabella Spaulding is the co-president of Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP). In the aftermath of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, ASAP held a “Survivor Speak Out” rally at the the cannon, which had been painted to say “We Believe Survivors.”

Spaulding said that in addition to the Survivor Speak Out, ASAP holds survivor space events throughout the semester that seek to create a network for survivors. Spaulding noted that she has seen more people reaching out about survivor spaces after #MeToo and the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings.

In addition to ASAP’s survivor spaces, Freeman identified the Center for Awareness, Resources and Education (CARE), Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) and the university’s Chaplaincy as confidential resources for survivors.

Spaulding said that ASAP has worked closely with CARE in combatting sexual assault at Tufts.

“We had a couple of faculty members come to the Speak Out,” she said. “Alexandra Donovan was there from the CARE office. She’s just been an excellent support system for ASAP, and we’ve been … working closely with her for trainings for community groups because she does Green Dot [Bystander Intervention] training.”

Overall, though, Spaulding noted that the university lacks adequate resources to support survivors, especially since the sexual misconduct resource specialist position is still vacant following Nandi Bynoe’s promotion to assistant dean of student affairs in April.

In addition to filling Bynoe’s former position, an important step the university could take to support survivors would be to hire more CMHS therapists who work with people healing from traumatic events, according to Spaulding.

“I also think generally having more mental health support for survivors, like … CMHS having more people trained in exposure therapy for PTSD and more explicit therapists with quality training in trauma work … would be a great thing,” she said.

For Spaulding, these changes would represent a crucial shift toward prioritizing survivors during the judicial process, whether it is on or off campus.

“The [judicial] process for students who choose to take … legal action against their perpetrators — the way that it exists now — … is the most traumatizing thing,” she said. “People, as we saw with Ford, are put [on] the stand, are questioned about their every motive, are asked inappropriate questions, are forced to often be in the room [with the] perpetrator and listen to their perpetrator’s side of the story … There [are] ways to center survivors and survivor well-being that I don’t think [are] happening.”

Despite the anger, pain and hardship that Kavanaugh’s confirmation caused, Bottger has found her peers’ understanding of consent as a reason to retain hope.

“I think the discourse around sexual assault [and consent] is changing, and … I think that the peers that I’ve talked to understand a different level of consent than was understood in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — that it’s not only ‘no means no,’ but it’s ‘yes means yes,’” Bottger said.

Bottger hopes that once her peers, armed with a deep understanding of and respect for consent, will ultimately prioritize people whose rights are currently being attacked.

“I’m extremely disenchanted with our political system, but it does … give me hope that once people of our generation are in positions of power in politics or elsewhere, I hope and I think there will be a much different mindset about women’s rights, about trans rights, about how we talk and how we react to sexual assault,” Bottger said.

Overall, Bottger believes that empowering people to have difficult conversations about toxic masculinity, consent and sexual assault is one way to begin moving forward.

“I think there is a need for more deeper conversations that goes beyond these individuals [like] Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford — they are representative of millions of experiences that are very similar,” she said.

Spaulding added that for many people in the Tufts community and beyond, these experiences are real life.

“I think people forget how very real this is for many people and how Dr. Blasey Ford never thought that she was going to be on the stand, questioned in the most public trial, and [that] most survivors of course never think that that’s going to happen,” Spaulding said. “People really need to think about what that means to a survivor … All people, I guarantee, are friends with [or] love a survivor [or] are survivors themselves.”