Justice for Dr. Blasey Ford: Lessons from the Kavanaugh Hearing

A central canon of judicial ethics is the avoidance of the appearance of impropriety. This prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen. Yet, in his confirmation hearing, Judge Kavanaugh bristled at the outrage of having to answer any questions related to a claim that he committed sexual assault.

The events of last week were a stark reminder of the power of white male privilege. That privilege can still trump codes of professional conduct, as well as the evidence of the health and psychosocial impacts of surviving sexual violence. White male privilege still believes that sexual assault should be met with impunity. Judge Kavanaugh, and his supporters in the Senate, did not offer even a modicum of respect to Dr. Blasey Ford. That lack of respect toward women, especially women who dare speak out against a man in power, is actually a global phenomenon.

According to the World Health Organization, one in three females worldwide have experienced sexual violence. But what happens when a statistic gets thrown around so many times that people begin to forget what that statistic really means for women and their families?

According to CDC data, women who have experienced sexual violence reported having short and long term physical and psychological impacts, a few of which include symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, chronic pain and gastrointestinal disorders. These symptoms permeate all aspects of women’s daily lives. The perpetrator may forget the events of the attack due to alcohol consumption or be able to write it off as merely adolescent boy behavior, but the survivor is not so lucky.

Public health researchers are examining ways to prevent and address the sexual violence crisis globally and in the U.S. There are several research studies that propose that survivors of sexual violence benefit from telling their stories of violence only if something changes as a result of their telling their story. We, as public health practitioners, will continue our work as we continue to hope that, as a result of Dr. Blasey Ford telling her story powerfully and authentically, something will change.

In the short term, we must ask ourselves what is the lasting impact of watching a federal Judge behave with such contempt and rage at merely being questioned about sexual assault charges? On the day of the hearing, calls to the National Sexual Assault Headline increased by more than 200 percent.

But, longer term, we must consider what will be the impact if Judge Kavanaugh ends up on the Supreme Court despite Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. How will the one in three women in the world who have experienced sexual violence handle seeing this man become one of the most powerful people in the United States. How do we explain to a generation of young girls that a man so convinced of his own impunity that he breaks out in a rage when asked questions will have a significant say in their ability to make decisions about their bodies?

We may not have the precise answers but we know that help is on the way. Maybe Dr. Blasey Ford’s poke at the destructive norm of white male privilege will trigger its dissolution. And we know the brilliant young students we teach who will not accept Senator Grassley’s world. They are the future.

People of color, women who have experienced sexual violence, and other marginalized groups, live in the world of their oppressors. As Judge Kavanaugh aptly demonstrated, white males with privilege are often totally unaware of the impact of their privilege. They feel entitled to everything they have and every opportunity in front of them, and are outraged by any challenge to their character or qualification.

Privilege means you can be caught on videotape stating your desire to assault women and still be elected President.

But that hearing, although terrifying for many of us to watch, is not the whole picture. For hundreds of years, marginalized communities have, and continue to, fight oppression and racism with community action, social movements, creative expression, and the sheer will to make the world and our communities a more equitable place.

Things change incrementally, but they do change.

The #MeToo movement has begun a national conversation about sexual violence and has the potential to spur necessary systematic and cultural change. Throughout the world, women are interrogating cultures that allow sexual violence to flourish with impunity.

Our role as public health professionals is to support these efforts by partnering with communities and survivors to produce evidence that can be transformed into action. We need interventions to change a culture that perpetuates sexual violence and vilifies women who voice their experience — even when the perpetrator is under consideration for a lifetime seat on the highest court.

Last week’s hearing demonstrates that we need to double down on our work, to educate students capable of disrupting this unacceptable context.

Destructive forces peak at times of transformative change. We hope this is a moment of transformative change; otherwise the destructive rage on full display last week by Kavanaugh is merely a terrifying symptom that a misogynistic ruling class will remain the status quo.

Terry McGovern is a human rights lawyer, and professor and department chair at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Stephanie Grilo is a doctoral student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Samantha Garbers is an epidemiologist and Associate Professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Lizzie Schroeder is a recent MPH graduate and program officer at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair, Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health