Ford-Kavanaugh Hearing Overlooks Enduring Trauma of Sexual Assault

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Political observers have been glued to news feeds watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford as she recounts her sexual assault as a young high-schooler in the 1980s. But almost everyone will miss, or intentionally overlook, what may be the biggest social issue of the day: Blasey Ford’s decades-long trauma stemming from the assault. In fact, her psychological trauma runs so deep, she believes her experience as a young teen should nullify Kavanaugh’s decades-long adult work building a career (and raising a family) that elevated him to the pinnacle of his profession: nomination as an associate justice to the Supreme Court of the United States.

For those who research sexual assault, or know sexual assault survivors, the soul-tearing character of sexual assault is no surprise. When the trauma goes unaddressed or untreated, young women and men often find their lives stalled if not turned upside down with twisted doubts about their self-worth and dignity as a human being. Sexual assault victims, particularly young ones such as the 15-year-old Blasey Ford, find themselves mired in depression well into their adult years. Some are driven to suicide. (See chapters 2 and 3 in my book Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It.)

These emotional and long-term psychological effects are not new or particularly startling, but they are largely unrecognized as the serious social problem they are in today’s partisan political climate. Blasey Ford’s testimony should serve as a clarion call for recognizing, understanding and addressing the harm and long-term debilitating effects caused by irresponsible behavior and the often unintentional harm created by unsupervised teenagers. The teenage years are particularly precarious ones, often characterized by poor judgment and narcissistic behavior. In fact, neuroscience suggests this behavior is hardwired but not necessarily universal. (See Frances Jensen’s The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide for Raising Adolescents and Young Adults). The potential for doing harm is particularly substantial in the formative years of young adults, and Blasey Ford’s testimony recounts the tangible manifestations of that harm. Psychological trauma is often deeper, more lasting, and more debilitating than physical trauma. This is particularly true with sexual assault and rape, where the physical effects are often invisible.

Kavanaugh will likely survive Blasey Ford’s testimony. His work as an adult and professional validates and legitimizes his continuing role as a federal appellate judge and probably his qualifications to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Moreover, despite Blasey Ford’s accusations, the evidence is a long way from proving that he committed the offense.

Even if Kavanaugh was the perpetrator, however, his work as a responsible adult should not negate, diminish, or trivialize the harm created by sexual assault, nor our responsibility as parents and adults to recognize it, address it and take actions to contain it.

The true tragedy of Blasey Ford’s testimony is that the behavior and consequences of teens acting irresponsibly and creating harm, even if unintended, were not addressed at the time of the event. Blasey Ford did not feel she could talk to an adult about the incident, was too young to recognize she should seek counseling and thereby to address the incident, felt too isolated to even talk to friends. The young men who assaulted Blasey Ford did not understand or care about the consequences of their actions—“boys will be boys”—nor, apparently, were adults supervising their testosterone-driven behavior to minimize the likelihood these traumatizing events would happen. This is a failure of civil society and is broader than the actions (or responses) of one individual or family. Unfortunately, this remains true in 2018.

While it’s tempting to believe the irresponsible behavior described by Blasey Ford (and others) and the associated likelihood of assault and rape are relics of a bygone era, this is not the case. Tens of thousands of young women and men are assaulted in high schools and on college campuses every year, a result of campus environments that fail to recognize the inherent limitations of putting teens in charge of their own actions without adults providing the context and structure—the civic culture—that mitigates the harms created by poor judgment.

Fortunately, solutions exist, although they do not involve a heavy-handed role of government. Further criminalizing teenage behavior with stronger punishments for errant behavior will not solve this problem. There are also no short-term fixes.

Here’s a reading list for those interested in broadening their understanding of the problems highlighted in Blasey Ford’s testimony and taking the task of rebuild civil society for teens more seriously:

  • Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It is my unflinching account of current campus culture geared toward parents of college-bound teens. I specifically address the emotional and psychological trauma associated with sexual assault and why it’s different from other traumatic experiences, why the punishment-oriented criminal justice approach doesn’t and won’t work, and scope out a framework for rebuilding civil society on college campuses to reduce its impact.
  • The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances Jensen. Dr. Jensen examines the neuroscience behind teenage behavior in prose that is remarkably accessible. Much of the behavior we see is hardwired in as part of brain development, and Jensen’s book provides needed context for understanding teen behavior and social psychology.
  • American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, by sociologist Lisa Wade, is an unsparing examination of how a libertine campus culture creates new dilemmas and ethical quandaries for teens as they attempt to enter adulthood.
  • We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino. Reading these diverse stories provides a sobering look at the breadth of the problem of sexual assault, the trauma it creates, and the struggles survivors face in rebuilding their lives.
  • Girl Land, by Caitlin Flanagan, is a perceptive and insightful foray into how American culture has evolved since the mid-20th century and inadvertently put girls at greater risk for the kinds of emotional trauma and assault on personal dignity. Flanagan’s meditation covers a lot of territory, including changes in popular culture and the consequences of weakened parental involvement in their lives.

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Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.

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