Despite several sexual misconduct allegations that remain unaddressed, the Senate approved Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for Justice of the Supreme Court on October 6 in a 50-48 majority vote. After Kavanaugh’s swearing-in, Chief Justice John Roberts filed for an ethics investigation of twelve complaints against the newest Supreme Court Justice. Currently, Judge Timothy Tymkovich is reviewing the complaints of Kavanaugh’s alleged pattern of partisan statements—but not the complaints of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct.
This September, Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D., a California research psychologist and professor, publicly announced that Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in a locked room when they were teenagers in 1982. Following her allegations, two more women came forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, both from the 1980s. Dr. Ford ultimately agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and did so on September 27. Since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Dr. Ford has maintained she has no further plans to pursue her sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh, although she feels she did the right thing by testifying and has “no regrets.”
Dr. Ford’s accusation and Kavanaugh’s subsequent nomination call to attention a host of mental and physical health concerns that survivors of sexual assault face. Sexual assault is defined as any form of sexual contact that occurs without voluntary consent and that violates a person’s sense of autonomy, control, and mastery over his or her body. Sexual assault is not as uncommon as many seem to believe. Reports show that one in six women, and one in 10 men, will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives. Sexual assault is the most common cause of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in women–one study found that 94% of women in North America experienced PTSD symptoms during the first two weeks after an assault. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD among women who have experienced sexual assault is 50%. Assault-related PTSD symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks that feel like one is reliving the event, changing one’s behavior to avoid scenarios associated with the event, feeling constantly on-edge, having difficulty sleeping, and losing interests in activities that were once enjoyable.
Reports show that one in six women, and one in 10 men, will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives.
The effects of an assault often last a lifetime and can impact survivors’ physical as well as mental health. Dr. Ford, for example, explained how the assault “derailed” her for four or five years, as she struggled academically and socially. After that, the assault haunted her for her entire adult life and has even impacted her marriage. Short-term impacts may arise from PTSD symptoms or from Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Longer-term effects of sexual trauma can include high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and high cholesterol.
Constant media coverage of the Kavanaugh case has forced many survivors in recent weeks to relive their traumatic experiences with assault, which leads many to experience recurring symptoms of PTSD. In the weeks since Dr. Ford’s public accusation, the National Sexual Assault Hotline has seen a 57% increase in calls—and a 201% increase on the day of Kavanaugh’s hearing. This increase in calls is common after sexual assault stories flood the news, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Press Secretary Sara McGovern. Dr. Ford herself told of her experience having to relive her own trauma when she came forward. In her testimony, Dr. Ford said, “Apart from the assault itself, these past couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life. I have had to relive this trauma in front of the world, and I have seen my life picked apart by people on television, on Twitter…and this body, who have never met me or spoken with me.” Dr. Ford’s experience echoes that of many survivors whose symptoms of PTSD, anxiety or depression have worsened in the wake of the Kavanaugh scandal.
Beyond both the assault and the process of reliving one’s trauma when similar stories arise, survivors often face an additional trauma when their community and even their government fail to believe them or to take action. In an interview with Time magazine, Harvard professor and PTSD researcher Karestan Koenan said that Kavanaugh’s confirmation will make many survivors feel as if sharing what happened to them had no impact. “Speaking out and feeling invalidated—or worse, shamed—can be devastating and make all the reactions worse,” Koenan said. The repeated failure of the government to hold politicians accountable for sexual misconduct sends the message to sexual assault survivors that accusing their attacker will not only bring few, if any, repercussions for the perpetrator, but that they might even be shunned for making such an accusation.
This failure to acknowledge, believe, and adequately aid survivors lead victims to experience secondary trauma, for example when survivors seek assistance from medical, legal or healthcare professionals who actually exhibit victim-blaming behaviors. In these situations, survivors may experience institutional betrayal, in which an institution that a survivor feels is supposed to protect him or her, ends up causing additional harm. Survivors—and everyone else, for that matter—need only look to Dr. Ford’s experience for a taste of what might await them should they come forward with an accusation. According to her lawyers, Dr. Ford has been subjected to death threats, had her email hacked and had to leave her home since she went public with her story.
Failure to acknowledge, believe, and adequately aid survivors leads victims to experience secondary trauma.
The resulting perception that the process of accusing someone—and not being believed—might actually be more traumatic than the assault can discourage past and future survivors from reporting the incident and from seeking treatment is one does develop PTSD. Failure to receive treatment early-on for PTSD is associated with worse recovery outcomes, while strong social support from the beginning is shown to be integral to a successful recovery. Research has shown that feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety or depression are often more intense and harmful when the survivor’s family, peers, and community authorities do not support him or her. These researchers also remind us that a variety of rape myths promote victim-blaming practices, which contribute to the development of PTSD. (One common rape myth is that women often make false reports of rape. Contrary to this belief, research has shown that only around 2% of sexual assault accusations are determined to be false.)
In the wake of such public accusations and public acceptance of assault, it is important to consider how effectively we are providing survivors with support following an assault. Sexual assault programs are becoming more common at least across college campuses, but they are not always able to sufficiently help survivors recover. Researchers and program designers should look to the failures of existing education and recovery programs to identify specific areas for improvement.
Failing to believe or aid survivors of sexual violence is a public health issue, and needs to be treated as such.
If you or someone you know is in need of guidance, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit them at RAINN.org.
 Chivers-Wilson, Kaitlyn A. (2006). Sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder: A review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatments. McGill Journal of Medicine. 9(2):111-118.