Like many Americans, I was riveted by last week’s U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. I experienced a range of emotions: shock, anger, and sadness. But mostly I was inspired by the bravery shown by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Since coming forward, she had been threatened, ridiculed, politicized, and deeply scrutinized. At the hearing, her credibility and even mental stability were questioned. And yet she was willing to stand up in front of the world to tell her story. Because she thought it was important. Not because she had anything to gain. But because she thought we needed to know.
Given the politically charged nature of the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh as U.S. Supreme Court justice, Dr. Ford’s hesitation to bring her claims forward is understandable.
Many sexual assault and harassment victims struggle with the same fears. Unlike with most other crimes, victims of sexual assault often are themselves put on trial.
The defense might insinuate their behavior led to the assault; that they “asked for it,” sent mixed messages, or are hysterical. Now image knowing you might face those questions after enduring the trauma of the assault itself—the deep and damaging personal violation. The sense of having one’s sense of safety forever erased, or feeling a sense of shame. It’s a devastating crime, one from which many victims never fully recover.
If there’s one thing these hearings have exposed, it’s how many victims have never told their stories. Sometimes because they didn’t understand that a crime had occurred, sometimes because they feared no one would take their assault seriously, and sometimes because they were afraid of being re-victimized by the system.
Against this landscape, the accusation has been made that Sen. Dianne Feinstein committed an ethical breach by following the wishes, as she understood them, of Dr. Ford, and that Feinstein made the situation worse by allowing Dr. Ford control over her own story.
It’s easy for others to decide that it would have been better for political or legal reasons for the senator to have handled the information differently. But what appears to be indisputable is that Feinstein was following the instructions of one key individual: the victim herself.
Sen. Feinstein surely understood the explosive nature of the information with which she was entrusted. She was in an untenable situation with no clear rules. And yet she displayed a concern for one priority above all else: the wishes of a terrified victim.
It seems to me that if we really want to encourage victims to come forward, we must create processes that reduce their trauma and place them in a position of control. Shouldn’t it be up to victims to decide if and when to tell their story? Dianne Feinstein gave Dr. Ford that basic respect. She didn’t treat her as a political pawn. She treated her as a human being whose life was about to be irrevocably altered.
I commend the bravery of both women.
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman is a Democrat from Glendale who represents the 43rd Assembly District, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.