Panelists broke down the implications of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation to the Supreme Court, at an event hosted by anti-sexual assault advocacy group No Red Tape on Monday.
The event invited students and panelists to reflect on “what justice means for survivors” following Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and to question the way we understand sexual assault.
The panelists continued a conversation about sexual assault on campus that has been ongoing since the Kavanaugh hearings in October. Hundreds of students and faculty protested on Low Steps, and over 40 Columbia law professors signed an open letter in the New York Times condemning his confirmation. At the demonstrations, students also voiced their fears that the precedent set by Kavanaugh’s example could make survivors more hesitant to report.
The panelists included chair of the department of women's, gender and sexuality studies Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young, whose work focuses on the intersection of scientific practice and social power, and Manhattan College associate professor of philosophy Dr. Jordan Pascoe, who studies how philosophy can be used as a tool for radical social and institutional change.
During the Q&A portion of the event, one student pointed out that the “innocent until proven guilty” standard prevents sexual assault survivors from being heard. Both panelists said that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her at a party while in high school, was unfairly subjected to a legalistic framework, despite the fact that the hearing was not a legal case, which ultimately challenged her credibility.
Pascoe further argued that while Blasey Ford had nothing to gain from being believed, Kavanaugh had much to lose—a point that should frame the public’s understanding of credibility. Studies have shown that, on average, fewer than 5 percent of reports of sexual assault are found to be false.
“Given the statistical reality of sexual assault, we should grant those who come forward with a presumptive credibility,” said Pascoe.
Jordan-Young further emphasized that the criminal justice system enforces sexist social hierarchies, and should not be used to deal with matters of sexual assault.
“The criminal justice system is not just historically, but presently, structured in a way that absolutely reflects dominant values of all the same kinds of social hierarchies that we’re actually trying to transform,” she said.
However, Pascoe said that she found hope in the fact that the Kavanaugh hearing was treated differently than previous cases, pointing out that male news anchors in particular had been more careful in the way they reported on Ford’s testimony.
“For four hours, every man spoke knowing that it would be a problem that he was a man. ... All the news channels had these big panels that had like, six women reporters and one or two men who would sit there and let [the women] talk,” she said. “The economy of who gets to speak and who gets to tell their stories and who gets to be heard and who has to listen has shifted for a moment in a way that felt very promising to me,” Pascoe said.
Pascoe called Ford’s testimony a “perfect performance of victimhood,” pointing out that her whiteness, articulation, and educational expertise should have contributed to her credibility according to conventional constructs of social hierarchy. Even this standard, Pascoe said, which is inaccessible to most women, proved not enough to warrant believability.
Both panelists emphasized the need for transformative justice, in which people reckon with and acknowledge how their own actions perpetuate the stigma against and continued abuse of sexual assault victims. Pascoe referenced the #MeToo movement, saying she was optimistic about the progression from the sharing of trauma and abuse to the sharing of stories of healing.
Jordan-Young emphasized the need to question the dynamics of power that allow for sexual assault to take place.
“The point is: How much power was asserted? How much did somebody feel and were they violated in terms of being able to control what was happening to their own body?” Jordan-Young said.