Before Christine Blasey Ford first publicly alleged Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her during a teen party in the early 1980s, she told the Washington Post one of her biggest fears was looking like she had been attacked. As a 15-year-old, she worried about what her parents might think, and whether she’d get in trouble for being around other teenagers who were drinking.
“I’m not ever telling anyone this,” Ford, now 51, said she was thinking at the time. “This is nothing. It didn’t happen, and he didn’t rape me.”
Those kinds of fears and doubts and denials — and the fallout from coming forward, like Ford is facing now — are still common among young survivors of sexual violence, and can keep them from getting help immediately after their assault, says Joel Levin, co-founder and director of programs at Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.
“There are all these personal inhibitors, all kinds of reasons why students don’t come forward in that age group,” Levin said of K-12 survivors. “People think they’ll be blamed and retaliated against, or not believed, especially if underage drinking or drug use is involved, that they’ll get in trouble with their parents.”
One in five girls 14-18 reported experiencing sexual assault
Experts say the cases are likely underreported, but a survey conducted by the National Women’s Law Center of 1,003 girls ages 14 to 18 in January 2017, about one in five girls reported experiencing sexual assault, defined as kissing or touching without consent. And according to 2011 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among female rape survivors, about 40 percent report that their first experience of sexual assault happened when they were younger than 18.
Often, sexual education courses in the K-12 level don’t even address consent or healthy relationships, said Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, senior counsel for education at the NWLC, making it difficult for survivors to know whether their trauma is valid and understood. Some advocates, educators and school districts are working to change that, and are making students aware of their rights through Title IX when it comes to reporting sexual assault and harassment.
Bryan Pacheco, spokesman for Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization based in New York CIty, said it’s important to note that survivors of K-12 sexual assault may be traumatized to the point of not necessarily realizing their assault took place, or may not remember their attack until years later. Plus, if children come forward they’re often made to rely on others to advocate on their behalf; if their parents don’t believe them, they risk their security system.
“There is a much different consideration for young people and for teenagers,” he said. “If you’re an adult with your own needs, that’s not a barrier. If you come forward and tell somebody, your housing won’t be in jeopardy.”
More resources may be going to the cause more recently, but Ford had her alleged experience in an era when there were few resources, and she kept her alleged secret for decades: She says Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and attempted to take off her clothes, covering her mouth to muffle her screams. When she went public on Sunday, Kavanaugh immediately denied the allegations and emphasized they were “from 36 years ago” and that he did not do this “in high school or at any time.”
While hundreds of alumnae from Ford’s all-girls high school in Maryland signed a letter saying they believed her allegations, she’s also faced major backlash. The California-based psychologist “has been the target of vicious harassment and even death threats. As a result of these kind of threats, her family was forced to relocate out of their home,” her attorneys wrote in a Tuesday letter to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is trying to arrange a hearing or interviews on the allegations. “Her email has been hacked, and she has been impersonated online.”
"It doesn’t go away for her, so why does it go away for him?”
That kind of backlash is why Quinn, a survivor of a sexual assault when she was 19, didn’t report her assault at the time and said she likely won’t now. “It feels exactly how it felt I thought it would if I were to have come out about mine,” said the now-27-year-old engineer from the Southeast, who asked to not use her last name or hometown for fear of retaliation.
Quinn was dismayed to hear people use Kavanaugh’s age and the timing of the allegations as an excuse for his alleged actions.
“If the allegations are correct, it doesn’t go away for her, so why does it go away for him?” she said. She noted how much effort it took Ford to come forward, and how she’s been discredited by some supporters of Kavanaugh.
Advocates and educators are watching the case unfold. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that “our nation’s students — including those who have experienced sexual harassment and assault — are taking note of how the Senate collectively responds to these allegations.”
Emmalyn Brown, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault and senior at the University of Iowa who intends to become a lawyer, said the news of the allegations against Kavanaugh was triggering. She’s currently petitioning that a school board member in her hometown of Athens, Ohio be removed after failing to investigate her sexual assault in middle school. She hopes to one day represent minors in sexual assault cases.
“Even though it is re-traumatizing to listen to, and watch on the news, I have been following it every second I’m out of class,” Brown said of the Kavanaugh allegations. “I want to know what the outcome is. I want to know what this means for K-12 survivors going forward.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee, originally scheduled to meet Thursday on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, has now delayed its vote until they hear Kavanaugh and Ford testify about the allegations. Republicans had hoped it would happen Monday, but Ford’s lawyers — and Democrats — want the FBI to conduct an investigation before she testifies, to at least establish a framework for the committee's questions.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican on the committee, told NBC that Ford is “not in really a position to make conditions, in my view.”
Cover: Royal High School. Students study in class with laptop computers and exercise books at Royal High School Bath, which is a day and boarding school for girls aged 3-18 and also part of The Girls' Day School Trust, the leading network of independent girls' schools in the UK. URN:38629605 (Press Association via AP Images)