**Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault**
When news broke that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had been accused of sexual assault by Christine Ford, the backlash against her was hopelessly predictable. It wasn’t long before President Trump took to Twitter to cast doubt on the credibility of the accusation, saying that if the attack was “as bad as she says,” Christine would have come to the police immediately.
It’s no surprise Trump sent this tweet out. Our failure to reconcile our ugly rape culture with the epidemic of sexual assault has created a country that distrusts women when they speak out about abuse. For Trump, the timing of Christine Ford’s assault justifies the presumption we already have against taking her seriously.
The tweet itself is a regurgitation of a tired argument we’ve heard again and again: if the assault really happened, it would have been reported. But as a shameless perpetrator of sexual misconduct himself, Trump is well-acquainted with the dangerous consequences women face when they do.
Legally, women have almost no incentive to report their assaults. Sex crimes are notoriously difficult to prove, and perpetrators are routinely let off easy even when they’re convicted. The case of Brock Turner illustrates this point well: after being convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault for raping an intoxicated and unconscious girl, a California judge gave him six months in county jail.
Tragically, the most surprising part of Turner’s sentence wasn’t that it was light, but that it was handed down at all. According to the nonprofit RAINN, 97 percent of rapists face no punishment at all. Why on earth would a woman drag their story through the headlines, face aggressive and triggering questioning by prosecutors, and pour their heart out to their communities just to watch their rapist walk free anyways?
On top of a lack of legal accountability, survivors who speak up are often doubted when they file a report. Police, prosecutors and communities often threaten or shame women for sharing their stories. In most cases, those stories are outright denied.
Ford herself is on the receiving end of vicious attacks after releasing her statement. Rumors that Ford was paid by Democrats to lodge the accusation have already spread online. Death threats have forced her to relocate. Whether or not Kavanaugh is confirmed by the Senate, Ford will spend years recovering from public attacks on her character.
Oftentimes, physical evidence of sexual assault is not enough for women to be taken seriously. After a beautiful rendition of “Natural Woman” at musical legend Aretha Franklin’s televised funeral, pop singer Ariana Grande was groped by the bishop who led the ceremony. Following the incident, observers took to the airwaves and comments sections to not only cast doubt on the severity of the incident but to blame Ariana for provoking the assault for wearing such a short dress.
Worst of all, it doesn’t even matter if the perpetrator admits to being an abuser. Those who cry “innocent until proven guilty” are often the same people who excuse the assault when evidence begins to pile up. The Hollywood Access tapes didn’t stop political pundits from excusing Donald Trump’s self-proclaimed affinity for sexually harassing women as “locker room talk.” It certainly didn’t stop voters from electing him president of the United States.
The only recourse women have for their assaults is the court of public opinion. The #MeToo movement has revealed over 200 prominent entertainers and public officials to be rapists and abusers, forcing companies to drop their support for them. But the loss of their careers is only temporary. Louis C.K. and Charlie Rose are the most recent to begin reintegrating into public life, with C.K. already on stage performing comedy again.
What that means is that the period of time it takes before perpetrators of sexual assault can achieve redemption is only as long as the time it takes for us to forget the women who spoke up in the first place.
The story of women who speak out is both tragic and familiar, regardless of how long it took them to do so. If you report, you must be prepared to face your family, friends, the media and the government as you are blamed, threatened and demoralized for your bravery.
Women who speak out about sexual assault are telling us a deeply personal story. They are stories filled with shame, denial, confusion and pain. The negligible space we leave for them to tell it is the reason why women like Christine Ford remain trapped in silence for decades.