Gaslighting, Time and Sexual Violence

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Christine Blasey Ford came forward alleging Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school over 40 years ago. The gap between the incident and her speaking out has prompted questions, a heated debate, and even the creation of a social media campaign around sexual violence reporting.

U. S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to cast doubt on the allegations because of Ford’s timing.

“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,” Trump tweeted.

This represents just one component of the widespread gaslighting survivors of sexual violence are subjected to.

Gaslighting refers to the manipulation of someone into second-guessing their sanity by psychological means. The term stems from Gaslight, a 1938 play and 1944 film in which a man does this to his wife to prevent her from revealing his past crimes. (In the titular incident, the man dimmed and brightened the gaslights in the home over time then insisted his wife was imagining the lighting changes).

Survivors are shamed for not coming forward about sexual abuse immediately, being told by people in their lives and even political figures that delayed reactions are a sign that the abuse was not significant.

However, this does not acknowledge the systemic barriers to coming forward immediately after an assault. Widespread victim-blaming can make survivors feel ashamed and guilty about their own victimization. Why would someone file charges against an assailant when they’ve been made to believe it was their own fault?

Ford had a difficult time remembering which year the incident allegedly happened, estimating that she was 15 years old. Blasey Ford attended a private preparatory school for girls in Maryland at the time, which was the early 1980s.

In the early 80s, there was panic around AIDS, leading to the common belief that it stemmed from loose sexual morality. Those who disagreed with implementing sex education claimed it would further increase sexual behaviours in youths. Many of those who called for sex education did so with the aim to reduce sexual behaviours. On both sides of the sex education debate, sex was taboo and shameful.

In that social atmosphere, with little to no education around consent, it should not come as a surprise that Blasey Ford, a teenage girl at the time, did not file charges following the alleged assault. While she is now a professor and a distinguished academic, we cannot attribute her knowledge and experience at 51 years old to her teenage self.

Refusing to consider the context of the alleged assault is a form of gaslighting. Traumatic incidents trigger a fight-or-flight response in the brain, redirecting power to the parts of our brain prepared for life or death situations and away from executive functions. This can impact memory consolidation and can make it difficult for survivors to remember events chronologically.  The effects of a traumatic incident often make the stories of survivors seem disjointed, which some claim is a sign of lying. The psychological damage is then used as evidence that no traumatic incident occurred despite overwhelming scientific evidence proving this to be false.

In response to allegations of sexual assault, the common responses create a toxic false dilemma: survivors who report cases immediately are said to be seeking attention or acting with ulterior motivation, while those who wait are deemed opportunists seeking to destroy the alleged assailants’ lives. Regardless of when or if survivors report assaults, their timing is wrong.

Survivors of sexual violence responded to the social media frenzy around Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, rallying around the Twitter hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.

Goodwill ambassador against human trafficking for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and actress Mira Sorvino tweeted: “#WhyIDidntReport because the first time I did for a serious sexual assault as a teenager nothing came of it, and later I felt that I wasn’t important enough to make a big deal over. I was wrong.”

“I waited over 20 years to report my sexual abuser. Because I was 14. Because it was my hero. Because it was my priest. Because I thought I’d be expelled. Because I feared no one would believe me. Because I thought suicide was easier than telling 1 person #WhyIDidntReport,” said journalist Thomas Roberts on Twitter.

Posts within the campaign shared personal anecdotes and explanations for why survivors do not always come forward immediately, or at all. These posts call attention to the flickering lights of our society, pulling into focus the experiences survivors know themselves to be true but are pushed to doubt because they did not report their victimization criminally. The campaign aims to show survivors facing backlash like Blasey Ford is experiencing that they are not imagining the metaphoric dimming gaslights.

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