We may never know beyond a reasonable doubt what occurred between Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh on that night in 1982—the night he is accused of sexually assaulting Dr Ford. We may never know the truth about the numerous other allegations of aggressive sexual behaviour made against Kavanaugh since Dr Ford came forward. We will probably never bother to find out.
But, from what we’ve witnessed in this week’s US senate hearings, we do know beyond a doubt that our cultural and political distrust of women is as fierce and fact-resistant as ever.
Dr Ford delivered testimony to the Senate that was clear, concise and specific. She recounted each of the details that she could recall about the night in question; she even provided an analysis of the way trauma imprints indelible images on our brains. When asked, ‘how sure are you that you were sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh?’ she answered, ‘100%’.
On the other hand, Judge Kavanaugh was emotional, evasive and uncooperative. He continued to raise his voice to assert that these allegations were falsehoods concocted by women and/or the Democratic Party to fell another innocent man.
Yet so many people still question the veracity of Dr Ford’s claims. Why? Because we still, in 2018, cling to a deeply-held distrust of women. It is buried deep in our bones and sits there, festering, waiting to pounce on the next ostensibly malicious and deceptive woman that dares to speak up.
When I say this belief is buried deep in our bones, I mean it: it can be found in of some of our society’s most fundamental origin stories. The Bible includes a story about a married woman who courts another man, is later rejected by him, and then accuses him of rape to cover up her infidelity. The exact same story is told in the Greek myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra. In fact, one study found that the majority of people interpret the women who feature in the Bible as temptresses, liars, or both.
If one were to review a cross-section of eighteenth century American literature, the trope of the woman who cries rape can be found just about everywhere you look.
This myth forms just one part of a much broader cultural belief that women should not show weakness; that their pain and suffering is either imagined or exaggerated. Author Leslie Jamison expresses this best in her 2014 essay The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain:
I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice-told, thrice-told, 1001-nights-told—masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore.
One study found that 66% of respondents agreed with some combination of what the literature calls ‘rape myths’; including that women lie about rape, that women secretly desire rape, and that victims are to be blamed for their sexual assaults. Bear in mind that this 66% are only the respondents who were willing to explicitly acknowledge their attachment to these beliefs. Another study found that 50% of respondents expressly believed in the specific myth that woman routinely lie about being raped.
As Jamison says, we accept these myths in order to excuse ourselves from the burden of meaningfully engaging with women’s suffering. No need to struggle with the listening or the telling anymore.
The allegations against Kavanaugh are far from the only forum in which our mistrust of women is laid bare. In fact, once you become aware of this cultural belief you start to see it everywhere.
In the US in 2015 there were 80,000 untested rape kits sitting in police offices and laboratories. In a major longitudinal study, Michigan State University professor Rebecca Campbell concluded that the reason this evidence was left unexamined was because police were routinely ‘treating victims in dehumanising ways’. They simply didn’t believe them.
A recent Australian study found that one-quarter of participants disagreed with the statement that ‘false claims of rape are rare’. These citizens may go on to become jurors in rape cases, and the same study also showed that jurors in sexual assault cases are at a much higher risk of bringing their own beliefs and attitudes about rape to bear on their deliberations. It’s not hard to imagine, then, why only 0.01% of rape trials result in conviction.
On the other hand, we frequently see convictions for sexual homicide offenders—that is, perpetrators who both rape and kill their victims. This sheds a truly grotesque new light to B.B. King’s famous line, don’t ever trust a woman until she’s dead and buried.
The idea that women lie about rape also contributes to the profound under-reporting of sexual assault. As survivors, we know that our credibility will be challenged if we come forward, so we say nothing. In the UK, approximately only 35% of rapes are ever reported. This leaves an alarming number of sexual assaults that go unspoken, when you consider that one in five women will be raped in her lifetime.
These figures also beg the question: given that we have such a comprehensive arsenal of stories of sexual assaults which have occurred in our lives, why on earth would we both making up false ones?
We can also see these deeply-held beliefs in the lying woman myth on display whenever sexual assault allegations do make it to trial (which, by the way, is incredibly infrequent: in England and Wales in 2016, only one in ten rapes that were reported to police made it to trial). On the rare occasions in which an alleged assailant comes before a judge, a jury, or, in this case, a Senate hearing, one gets the distinct impression that it is the victim, and not the assailant, who is on trial. It was Dr Ford, and not Judge Kavanaugh, who was asked to describe her experience in excruciating detail. In fact, Kavanaugh got away with saying not much at all.
In a truly cruel irony that was on display in the questioning of Dr Ford, complainants are asked to recount in finite detail the narratives of their assaults, when it is widely understood that the very nature of traumatic memory is that it evades narrative. It comes to us in flashes, out of sequence. We experience felt memories of trauma that do not necessarily include context such as time and place. But these details are exactly the kind we demand of victims in court. It is a savage game in which the odds are stacked against us and one that we can never hope to win.
Dr Ford recounted the moment she believed that Kavanaugh would accidentally kill her—he had his hand over her mouth during the assault. We know from the large body of trauma literature that it is these exact moments—moments of helplessness; moments when we realise death may be imminent—that distinguish painful memories from memories that are neurologically traumatic. So it seems reasonable to conclude that Dr Ford experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the assault, meaning that the very fact of the attack makes it almost impossible for her brain to recount the event in a narrative form.
In fact, from a neuroscientific point of view, a victim who cannot recall the precise narrative of her trauma is more likely to be telling the truth. If she had concocted an elaborate lie, wouldn’t she have made it airtight?
This process of putting victims on trial is not only problematic in terms of truth-seeking, it is also profoundly damaging to victims. When her sexual abuse complaint against her former music teacher finally came to trial, some of the questions asked of Frances Andrade included:
‘That is simply not true…’
‘You are indulging in the realms of fantasy…’
‘Utter fantasy, is it not?’
‘This is a lie…’
She described the experience as akin to being ‘raped all over again’. Three days after this cross-examination, Frances Andrade committed suicide.
How many truths have we lost to the myth of the duplicitous woman? How much information about the prevalence of abuse are we missing as we allow it to be buried with the bodies of the girls and women for whom the indignity was unliveable?
In Bri Lee’s seminal work on the legal treatment of sexual assault complainants, she reflects on the warnings judges are obliged to give juries in relation to certain crimes. One of them is ‘Bear in mind this warning: the mere fact that the defendant tells a lie is not in itself evidence of guilt’. I’d love to know how frequently jurors apply this sentiment to sexual assault complainants, for whom the slightest discrepancy in the recollection of detail is so often taken as confirmation that she is lying about the entire encounter; that the whole story is nothing but a cruel invention.
On this point, Lee suggests that there should be a special warning for sexual assault cases: ‘Bear in mind this warning: There is a strong statistical probability that you will presume this woman is a liar’.
This myth also manifests in the various ways in which society, through the mouthpieces of those in power, sympathises with the alleged perpetrator. Author and journalist Kate Manne calls this ‘himpathy’. President Trump said Kavanaugh was a ‘good guy’ and that ‘this is not a man who deserves this’. The notion of alleged perpetrators not deserving their fate is a refrain we hear all too often.
Doesn’t deserve what? To be investigated? To be held accountable? No; the truth is that the belief at the core of this statement is just the lying woman myth rearing its ugly head again. What is actually being said here is: He doesn’t deserve to be lied about. He doesn’t deserve to face the wrath of the temptress, the liar, the immoral woman determined to bring about his downfall to distract attention from her own shortcomings.
With this logic at the core of our belief system, all adjudications of sexual assault and harassment are up-ended. Instead of determining the guilt of the alleged rapist, we focus instead on the crime that we presume the victim has committed: the crime of crying rape, which is apparently far more serious and worthier of investigation than rape itself.
In 2015, the New York Times reported four cases in which women made rape allegations and were prosecuted and, in some cases, fined and put on probation, for making false rape complaints. Years later, evidence surfaced confirming the defendant’s guilt in each case—each of the rapes had in fact occurred.
These survivors were all telling the truth, but even the truth could not protect them from the persistent myth of the lying woman.
And now to address the elephant in the room: of course there are some people who lie about rape. The amount of false rape accusations in this country sits between 2-10% percent— roughly the same figure as any other serious crime.
In a comprehensive analysis conducted by Quartz, Sandra Newman wrote that the women who do, in fact, make false rape accusations, all fit a very specific profile.
She says, ‘almost invariably, adult false accusers who persist in pursuing charges have a previous history of bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud. Indeed, they’re often criminals whose family and friends are also criminals; broken people trapped in chaotic lives.’
None of these characteristics describe women like Dr Ford, or any of Bill Cosby’s accusers, or any of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, or, indeed, the vast majority of women who come forward about sexual assault. So to apply this stereotype—one of criminality, fraud and disregard for the lives of others—to all women who speak out about rape is as extraordinary as it is immutable.
The lying woman myth is profoundly dangerous. It has caused incalculable harm to victims and their families. It has not only tortured these victims but it has forced them to suffer the indignity of being portrayed as criminals themselves, and in so doing has entirely erased the harm caused by the violence visited upon them.
A recent study has shown that men’s belief in these rape myths is itself a key predictor of sexually aggressive behaviour. So when I say these myths are dangerous, I am not engaging in a currency of abstraction; the attachment to these myths about rape directly correlates with increased prevalence of rape itself.
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that this myth has landed us with two alleged rapists sitting on the Supreme Court and one in the White House.
We will probably never know the truth of what happened on that night in 1982, because we probably won’t bother to find out. This is because truth-seeking has become redundant in the face of a belief so deeply held that it has become its own truth; a belief that has been transformed into fact: that women are not to be trusted.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist and writer. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction about trauma and recovery, will be published in 2019.