In 2006, Tarana Burke, an activist from Harlem, founded the #MeToo movement to support victims of sexual assault and harassment, particularly women of color from low-income communities by promoting the idea of “empowerment through empathy.” This established a community for sexual assault survivors to know they are not alone. Now, more than a decade later, the #MeToo movement went viral on social media and created a platform for survivors to share their stories and illustrate the widespread pervasiveness of sexual assault. Due to this movement, the culture of how we deal with sexual harassment cases has changed. Our language, actions, and sensitivities are finally moving from victim shaming to providing space for a revolutionary movement spearheaded by women. Just this week, from September 23rd to 29th of 2018, the media has been covering a wide array of high-profile cases that deal with sexual assault. The news covered sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the sentencing for a sexual assault case against comedian Bill Cosby, and how the Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos has changed sexual misconduct rules in colleges.
Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, has been undergoing sexual assault accusations by Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California. The sexual assault occurred 36 years ago, at a teenage house party in Montgomery County. Ford claims that Kavanaugh’s friend, Mark Judge, was there watching as Kavanaugh drunkenly groped Ford and stifled her screams by covering her mouth. It wasn’t until Judge jumped on top of them, making them all fall, that Ford was able to escape. Judge Kavanaugh has denied these allegations and has stated under oath, “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time” (Farrow and Mayer).
Ford was quiet about the incident until couples’ therapy in 2012, where her therapist wrote down that she was attacked by students “from an elitist boys’ high school” (Schallhorn) and started receiving treatment for the attempted rape from her teen years.
In July, when Dr. Ford heard information from the Washington Post that Kavanaugh was on the list to replace justice Anthony Kennedy, Ford wrote a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein about the incident before Trump publicly announced the nomination. Feinstein sent the letter to federal investigative authorities and declined to expose Ford’s identity to respect the confidentiality she requested. When Ford’s letter was leaked, Republican’s accused Feinstein and the Democrats of a “smear campaign” (Golshan). Nonetheless, the news began learning Ford’s identity when she discussed the matter with a friend who talked to the press. Ford decided to come forward for an interview with the Washington Post because she felt her civic responsibility outweighed her terror.
On September 18th, Dr. Ford’s lawyers have written she would be willing to attend a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing once an F.B.I investigation is done on the matter. Republicans were urging Dr. Ford to come to the hearing, ensuring it will be private or public based on her preference. The GOP was being strict on not discussing a different day for the hearing and pushing a confirmation vote on Kavanaugh soon after the testimony.
In response to the GOP’s push for this testimony, Dr. Ford’s lawyers wrote a letter to Senator Grassley, who is part of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and declared the Senator and his staff have organized a public meeting for Dr. Ford to “relive this traumatic and harrowing incident” in front of U.S. Senators “who appear to have made up their minds that she is ‘mistaken’ and ‘mixed up’” (Baker, et al.).
Despite this, Ford agreed to testify on Thursday, September 27th on Capitol Hill. Her testimony took four hours as she recounted the traumatic story on what happened that night in 1982. It was clear that at times, Ford was fighting to hold back her emotions as she told specific details about the incident. She was mostly questioned by the independent prosecutor the Republicans hired named Rachel Mitchell in order to avoid the image of 11 Republican men asking Ford questions on her testimony. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, made it be known he was disgusted by the Democrats for orchestrating a politically driven smear to his campaign, denied all the accusations against him, except for occasionally drinking beer as a teenager, and refused to withdraw his as a nominee for the Supreme Court.
After the hearings, a few Republicans such as Senator Jeff Flakes is requesting for a supplemental background check on Kavanaugh. The senators agreed they will allow for a limited scope investigation for up to a week before a final vote.
Since then, the testimonies have created a dramatic uproar in the country. Many still support Kavanaugh, arguing his allegations are false and there is not enough evidence. Organizations such as Times Up, which promote safe, fair, and dignified work for women are calling on Kavanaugh to resign his nomination, arguing he no longer has the credibility to serve on the highest court of the nation. They believe “a man accused of multiple instances of sexual violence cannot have decision-making power over the lives of American women for decades to come” (@TIMESUPNOW). Additionally, Anita Hill, who gave a testimony in 1991 against the then supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas on sexual assault claims, has spoken up about how the senate judiciary committee hearings could be done right this time. Many retort we still haven’t learned from Hill’s testimony, the country has not grasped how to take sexual assault accusations seriously and in a way to maintain the public confidence on the Supreme Court.
Yet, after more than a decade of legal battles against a recurring perpetrator, there has been one win in the courts for sexually assaulted women. Bill Cosby, known before as an iconic comedian, is now a convicted sex offender. He was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a former college and professional basketball player. Constand reports the incident occurred in 2004, when Cosby was mentoring her on her life and career. One night in Cosby’s home in Philadelphia, he gave her pills he claimed would relieve her stress. Instead, they made her lose consciousness. She woke up to him touching her inappropriately and feeling “raw in and around her vaginal area” (Egan). After days of thinking, Constand reported the incident to Montgomery County police. The prosecutors at the time declined to file criminal charges against Cosby because there wasn’t enough evidence to win a conviction. For this reason, she sued him in a civil case and the two settled on roughly $3 million in 2006.
Eight years later, in 2014, Hanniball Buress performed a comedic skit calling out Cosby as a rapist. The video went viral, gaining attention from the public on all the sexual assault allegations that were against him. This encouraged more than 60 women to share their stories against Cosby. There was an obvious pattern among the accusers and their incidents, all of them were significantly younger than Cosby, it happened mostly in the 70’s and 80’s, most of them were aspiring actresses and models, and two-thirds of them involved drugging. Despite the number of accusers, most of them are not able to sue or impose criminal charges due to statute of limitations. The assaults occurred all over the United States, specifically, 11 states and 19 cities where the statute of limitations to file a criminal case was between four to 10 years.
As Cosby faced increased scrutiny, the district court judge Roberto Eduardo decided to publicly release a deposition where Cosby admitted to using Quaaludes, a hypnotic drug that induces sleep on women he wanted to have sex with in the past. This enabled the Montgomery County prosecutors to reopen Constand’s criminal case just a month before the statutes of limitations in her case expired. After the first trial resulted in a hung jury due to the jury not being able to decide. They struggled over the definition of certain terms such as “reckless” and “unreasonable” and discussed scandals that were not discussed during the trial. Moreover, it is hard to prove cases where a significant time has elapsed and also because Judge O’ Neill did not allow other accusers to testify. The second trial, which occurred in April, resulted in a guilty verdict for Cosby on three accounts of aggravated indecent assault. After many months of house arrest, Cosby is now sentenced to three to ten years in a state prison, ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and to cover the costs of the prosecution.
His conviction was a major shock to the victims. It was groundbreaking that a court of law the truth in their statements. They felt as though they were finally heard. Moreover, the victims were also happy with the recent sentence. Cosby doing time in prison demonstrates that no person is above the law. Truths eventually resurface and consequences are faced. Many hope this precedent will empower victims and encourage them to fight for justice.
In related news, the secretary of education, Betsy Devos, has rescinded the letter written by the Obama era Department of Education that outlined responsibilities colleges and schools need to follow when it comes to campus sexual assault cases. Devos and her administration are now proposing new rules on sexual misconduct that will affect students from primary to tertiary institutions. The three main differences between these new rules compared to rules under the Obama administration is the added rights of students accused of sexual harassment, a new definition of sexual harassment, reduced accountability for institutions of higher learning, and more support services for victims.
Under the Obama administration, campus sexual assault cases were to be held under the evidentiary standard of the “preponderance of evidence,” where a jury or judge decides a case based on the side with more compelling evidence. Critics argued this often eradicated the due process rights of the accused due to it failing many students and advocated for the “clear and convincing” standard that must meet the requirements of the “preponderance of evidence” standard but lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Now, Devos wants to allow schools to choose their own evidentiary standard when dealing with campus sexual assault cases. However, the Obama administration did not recommend mediation, which allowed students to present evidence and to cross-examine each other. It was seen as a process that could be a traumatizing and frightening process for some students to go through. The Obama administration also argued mediation processes may hinder victims from acting and holding the perpetrators accountable. Yet, Devos’ new rules will allow a mediation process.
Furthermore, the previous definition of sexual harassment, which was seen as too broad, was, “unwelcome conduct of sexual nature” (Green) which includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests, favors, and any verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of sexual nature. The new rules will use the new Supreme Court definition, “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity” (Green). There was a purpose as to why Obama’s administration made the definition broad, in order to compensate for the various ways a student may feel uncomfortable when in a sexual situation. By making the definition narrower and using terms such as “severe” and “offensive” it gives those deciding on the case to use more of their personal discretion, a damaging way to look at student cases.
Before, colleges were accountable for sexual harassment cases they reasonably should know about. College administrations complained about because it was very broad and made colleges accountable for incidents they were not aware of. Now, colleges are only responsible for formally reported sexual assault incidents. This defined a specific step that would determine if a school took proper steps into addressing claims. These new regulations would be time-limited, and non-disciplinary to keep students in school. This is a major issue because it is insensitive to victims of sexual assault who are often afraid to report their experiences. Furthermore, this rule will allow perpetrators to continue their education in that institution, making it an unsafe and dangerous environment for the victim.
Additionally, if victims decline to file a formal complaint, the government will not hold the school accountable unless they provide adequate support services such as counseling, deadline extensions, changes in class schedules, campus escort services, mutual restrictions on contact between the parties, changes in housing, leaves of absences or increased security and monitoring.
The reasons for the new changes are to create an impartial process where both the accuser and accused have a fair process. The accused needs to be seen as innocent until proven guilty through investigations. While these new rules have improved the due process rights of the accused, many victim rights groups are concerned this will allow perpetrators to easily escape consequences. By narrowing the definition of sexual assault, limiting the time for students to come forward, and making decisions against perpetrators as non-disciplinary will allow colleges to become dangerous and give more power to perpetrators to continue their crimes. Morgan McCaul, a survivor of sexual violence commented, “when we define policy about criminal sexual misconduct, it is imperative that we consider victims first” (Jesse).
Through Brett Kavanaugh’s allegations and Bill Cosby’s conviction, the changing attitudes towards sexual assault cases are due to the cultural shift we are currently going through. The people we elect to official government offices are now held more accountable than ever and social media has a powerful position in exposing assaulters. Yet, Betsy Devos’ new sexual misconduct policies demonstrate how we are still fighting an uphill battle in believing victims because the changing nature of the jurisprudence of sexual misconduct rules will shape a new era for the rights of victims and the accused. While we are steering towards a society where rhetoric on a women’s sexual assault experiences are less taboo, we recognize how misogyny will always have its role in the patriarchal order where we are “lifting men up and putting women down” (Manne). This is evident in the way Dr. Ford and Andrea Constand were labeled as “greedy, grasping, and domineering” because they spoke about their sexual assault experiences, thus challenging male dominance by holding their perpetrators accountable for their actions (Manne). By being non-compliant women, society utilizes their misogynistic tools to impose social costs, such as death threats and being labeled as liars and whores. On the other hand, women like Betsy Devos are working to sustain himpathy in an effort to hope the patriarchal order will eventually reward them. This has shown 2018 has had both advances and falls for communities of sexual assault survivors and we have much more work to do.
Egan, Nicole. “Arrest Warrant Issued for Bill Cosby for Alleged January 2004 Sexual Assault of Andrea Constand.” PEOPLE.com, Time Inc, people.com/crime/arrest-warrant-issued-for-bill-cosby-for-alleged-2004-sexual-assault/.
Farrow, Ronan, and Jane Mayer. “A Sexual-Misconduct Allegation Against the Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Stirs Tension Among Democrats in Congress.” The New Yorker , 14 Sept. 2018.
Golshan, Tara. “Sen. Dianne Feinstein Says She and Her Staff Did Not Leak Christine Blasey Ford’s Letter.” Vox, Vox, 28 Sept. 2018, www.vox.com/2018/9/27/17912102/feinstein-christine-blasey-ford-letter-leak.
Green, Erica L. “New U.S. Sexual Misconduct Rules Bolster Rights of Accused and Protect Colleges.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/29/us/politics/devos-campus-sexual-assault.html.
Jesse, David. “Why Sexual Assault Survivors Are Fuming over Betsy DeVos’ Proposed College Guidelines.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 3 Sept. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/08/31/devos-sexual-assault-investigation-changes/1157376002/.
Manne, Kate. DOWN GIRL: the Logic of Misogyny. OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019.
Schallhorn, Kaitlyn. “Who Is Christine Blasey Ford, the Professor Who Accused Brett Kavanaugh of Sexual Misconduct?” Fox News, FOX News Network, 27 Sept. 2018, www.foxnews.com/politics/2018/09/27/who-is-christine-blasey-ford-professor-who-accused-brett-kavanaugh-sexual-misconduct.html.
@TIMESUPNOW. “a man accused of multiple instances of sexual violence cannot have decision-making power over the lives of American women for decades to come” Twitter, September 24, 6:28 pm., https://twitter.com/TIMESUPNOW/status/1044398282414338048.