“And this is precisely why so many sexual abuse survivors remain silent,” we thought, as we watched the Senate Judiciary Committee tear into Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she tried to explain why some details of the sexual assault she suffered were fuzzy while others were vividly etched into her brain.
As the hearings following the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court descended into frantic chaos last week, with senators leaving the chamber and returning, and some making condescending pronouncements like “she’s an attractive, good witness,” causing a collective gasp from the mouths of most women – and many men – across the nation, we couldn’t help but notice that the focus throughout the hearings was not on understanding the horror of sexual assault, but rather on ensuring that a “good man’s reputation” isn’t tarnished. The needle was very clearly pointed at defending Kavanaugh versus believing, let alone respecting, his accuser.
This hostility toward Dr. Blasey Ford, and the unrelenting questioning of the veracity of her testimony, peppered with insinuations that she remembers wrong, or doesn’t remember enough, or perhaps has confused the identity of her attacker, goes against everything that medical professionals and lawyers, like us, who are experts on sexual violence, know about survivors and about how a brain in a state of high anxiety remembers things.
We know that a traumatic experience ignites the body’s fight or flight response, mediated by a release of certain hormones, including norepinephrine, in the brain. The increase in this neurotransmitter, which specifically relates to high emotional valence memory storage, safeguards the most salient details of an experience – like an attacker’s smell or voice – and locks them into our memories via the Hippocampus, the area responsible for storing emotion-based memory in the brain. Conversely, the more extraneous details – like escaping the scene, or who else was present – may not be recorded at all. Hence memories of trauma can be remembered both vividly, and over time very reliably, while other details of the same trauma are completely forgotten. This is not uncommon. In fact, this is normal.
We also know that most survivors do not report sexual assaults. The reasons range from shame, fear of exposure, fear of re-traumatization or retaliation or being disbelieved, fear of being blamed, a feeling of guilt on their own part – “Did I do anything to cause this?” – a feeling of hopelessness that nothing will come of reporting the abuse, as well as a desire to suppress the event and just “make it go away”.
Those of us who practice medicine know that Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony, from beginning to end, was wholly in keeping with the experience of a person who has been sexually assaulted.
It may take repeated outcries from survivors who endured assault, and from health care providers or activists who work with them, to change perceptions around sexual abuse and the realities of reporting these crimes. Or perhaps it will take senators being cornered in an elevator, confronted with raw and indisputable truth of emotion and anguish.
Whatever it takes, perceptions must change. The Kavanaugh hearings have sent a dangerous message to sexual abuse survivors that their stories will not be believed, and it further emboldens perpetrators, and perpetuates the notion that abusers – especially those in powerful positions – will be defended at all costs.
Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS, is a professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and a medical expert consultant for PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. Karen Naimer, JD, LLM, MA, is the director of PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. Gail Saltz, MD is a PHR board member and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.