The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice, as well as the allegations of sexual assault against him, have created a tsunami of outrage from American women. Each day sees new protests, collective action, personal testimony and furious words blistering across the internet.
Over the weekend, out of this wave of anger, came #WhyIDidntReport, a hashtag created in response to the following tweet from Donald Trump: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
Immediately, women responded by tweeting their reasons for not reporting crimes of harassment and assault they had been subject to at the time. There are currently over 675,000 tweets using the hashtag.
A simple search on Twitter will show you that the tweets have several things in common: women didn’t think they’d be believed; their abusers were often known to them and in positions of power; they’d been told not to say anything and were frightened of what would happen if they did; they didn’t want to accept the reality of what had happened – shame was their silencer. As one woman wrote to me yesterday:
“I was 11. He was in his late teens. He was a member of my extended family and the grown-ups wanted us to play together while they talked. At the time, I didn't even really know what he wanted me to do or why, but he said we'd get in trouble, so I kept quiet. Later, when I realised, I'd already heard what they all said about women who lied about these things in order to get attention, and I didn't want my mum to think I was one of them, so I didn't say anything. I told her recently. She believed me. It was too late by then. We haven't told anyone else.”
A woman’s trauma has always been mere collateral to a man’s success
Since the #MeToo movement gathered momentum last October in response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, it’s impossible not to realise that most women have endured some sort of sexual harassment, assault or abuse in their lifetime. Now, these same women are explaining what kept them from coming forward. Perhaps one of the many reasons for such a huge response was that Trump’s tweet infuriatingly suggested the process of reporting sexual assault is a straightforward one.
Yet, we know that, historically, rape victims don’t come forward for multiple valid reasons. As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently: “We know that a minority of rapes are reported; and of those, a small percentage result in arrests; and of those arrests, a small percentage result in prosecutions. Only a very small percentage result in convictions and sentences.” More often than not, the system doesn’t work for victims of sexual assault and violence. Even with the emotional labour and courage of speaking out, the procedure in place has been essentially flawed. Ultimately, the law has not been able to defend women from a deeply ingrained culture of “boys will be boys”. A woman’s trauma has always been mere collateral to a man’s success. Any sort of justice has seemed elusive at best, and virtually impossible in some cases, as this attitude has dictated judges, juries, lawyers and even victims’ own communities. This is before you even consider tackling the shackles of shame.
#WhyIDidntReport will be one of the infinite conversations around power and assault that comes out of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. But what is clear is that we must stop expecting victims to do the heavy emotional labour of explaining their actions to strangers on the internet in an effort to obtain justice. Instead, we must demand a system in which women feel heard and believed. The question can’t be “Why didn’t you say anything?” – it must be “Why didn’t anybody help you?”.