Following Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Columbia and Barnard students have voiced their fear that Kavanaugh’s example—including public hearings on his alleged misconduct as a teenager and college student—may perpetuate misunderstandings surrounding consent and discourage survivors from reporting sexual assault at Columbia.
Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court Saturday afternoon, following weeks of contentious confirmation hearings based on the allegations of sexual assault raised by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed that he held her down and assaulted her at a party when they were in high school. A former college classmate, Deborah Ramirez, also accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at a dorm party while they were students at Yale.
For some students, the allegations against Kavanaugh, including crossing a line of sexual impropriety while drunk at social gatherings, parallel situations faced by survivors of sexual assault on campus. Now, students—especially anti-sexual assault activists—worry that his nomination could damage the credibility of sexual assault survivors and could weaken their voices in legal proceedings.
Last Thursday, hundreds of students and faculty members demonstrated on Low Steps and in the International Affairs Building in protest of Kavanaugh’s nomination. These protests followed an open letter in the New York Times that was signed by over 2,400 law professors across the country, over 40 of whom were from the Law School.
Julia Guo, CC ’22, said that she has seen many of her fellow first-years struggle with violations of consent, specifically in the presence of alcohol, and noted how these experiences often mirror Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior.
“Since [Kavanaugh] used the excuse that he was drunk and he was at a party—I do think that this will make people also be inclined to use that excuse. … I have seen it here a lot, around a lot of freshmen I’ve encountered, just because I feel like that’s also a kind of a natural response to an accusation,” Guo said.
A recent study published by Columbia researches showed that, while students understand the legal definition of consent, many still grapple with how to apply that knowledge in real-world situations, particularly those involving alcohol. Because of the magnitude of and national attention given to Kavanaugh’s case, it has begun to permeate campus conversations surrounding issues of consent and sexual assault.
“Even though statistics show that one in three women at Columbia will experience sexual assault... it kind of feels a little bit foreign to us,” Peter Gado, CC ’22, said. “Now, because this is such a high profile story that everyone knows about, it might bring up discussions more because it is fresh in people’s mind and maybe they’ll start noticing more in their lives and start thinking about it more.”
Many students agreed that, while they were dismayed by Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it did not come as a surprise.
“[After Trump’s election] I should not be surprised that someone who has committed sexual assault and has had so many women come out and speak against him [would] be appointed such prominent position of power. It's really disheartening to see how far politics has fallen since then,” Connie Raptis, BC ’20, said.
Students also pointed to the fact that Kavanaugh was nominated despite an outpouring of support for Dr. Ford, which may discourage survivors from reporting incidents of sexual assault, especially on high school and college campuses.
“Even if a woman comes forward with testimony… It is not necessarily true that there will be consequences. … Students might think twice about reporting,” Alexon Francisco Grochowski, a first-year in the School of International and Public Affairs said.
Kavanaugh’s hearings prompted President Trump to tweet that it is a “very scary time for young men in America,” echoing the belief, shared by many Americans, that sexual assault accusations pose a career threat.
Similarly, the SHIFT study, in which many male students said they feared that their consent practices fall short of legal standards.
“After the Kavanaugh confirmation and after the entire testimony, the President came out and said this was a very scary time for men, which I don’t believe to be true—it’s only scary if you’ve actually sexually assaulted someone because then you have something to fear,” Gabriel Gonzalez, CC ’22, said.
No Red Tape member Anja Chivukula, BC ’21, further pointed out that this fear of accusations places more attention on the perpetrators of sexual assault than on the victims.
“If a male student says ‘I am worried I am going to be accused of sexual assault because I've heard other people being accused of sexual assault’… their worry is not ‘Do I know people who have been assaulted?’ … It is not about women in any way,” Chivukula said.