What the Ford – Kavanaugh Debate Still Gets Wrong

With all that has been happening in the US in the last week – the Pittsburgh massacre, bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, the shooting at Kroger’s supermarket in Kentucky – you would think that people have more important issues to focus on. Apparently not. I am continuing to be on the receiving end of significant blowback for my impressions of the Kavanaugh situation. I, an avowed centrist, have been accused of being a left-wing radical simply because I believe that Dr. Ford was telling the truth and I made the mistake of publicly voicing it. So, let me explain and hopefully it will be a lesson for both men and women on grooming, abuse and how it impacts us all.

I treat many individuals who have been abused and have decades of experience working with and understanding trauma and resiliency, from both a clinical as well as a research perspective. Dr. Ford’s retelling of her experience was believable, credible and reliable. Because of my work I feel compelled to say that her report is highly probable but the more I say it that the more I am attacked. The rigid, hostile reaction that has come my way is not unique to me. Society is being torn into tribal camps in a profoundly disturbing way by agendas that make no room for people only political positions. Supporters of #metoo, women’s rights and those supportive of Judge Kavanaugh took positions that have blurred the reality of sexual assault and trauma to the detriment of both camps. Women cannot be expected to react as a single block and conservative positions work for many people. Still, there is a fundamental empirical reality about assault that should not be shadowed by the politics. For that reason, it is important to review what we can learn from the Ford – Kavanaugh fiasco and related misconceptions.

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford sent a letter to an elected official detailing the assault she alleged occurred at the hand of Brett Kavanaugh she reportedly requested anonymity. Her only reported goal in writing the letter was to suggest that a more detailed investigation of Kavanaugh be undertaken. Like many abused individuals who come forward about their abuse, she wanted to retain her anonymity and avoid public discourse about a private, painful event. That was not to be as extreme partisanship is the rule of the day.

The politization of the situation by both sides has led to a complete misunderstanding of the psychology of sexual abuse and how victims react to what they experienced even decades later. It’s not just Republicans. Even Hillary Clinton got it wrong when she said that Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was “not an abuse of power.” Abuse is always related to power. The abuser is more powerful, more controlling and manipulative and that is precisely how they get what they are after. To misunderstand that is to grant a pass to abusers.

So here are the basics: One in four women and one in about five men will have been sexually assaulted and or abused by the time they are 18 years old. Most survivors are extremely intimidated and do not report what occurred. One of their biggest fears is that they will not be believed or worse that they will be rejected by their family and friends if they do tell someone. They also fear being blamed and carry unwarranted but immense self-blame. Their abusers’ shame and frighten them into believing they are helpless. Only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported to the authorities and 90% of rape cases are not reported. When a victim does report it is usually many years, even decades later. In fact, on average, it takes 20 years before a report is made.

Stranger danger is not very common at all. Abusers are most often people known to their victims and are accepted members of their community. Abusers are good at grooming their prey, and the community where they live, work and operate into seeing them as upstanding citizens, the type of person that neighbors and friends would refer to as “really nice” and “they would never do such things.” And most important, survivors of abuse, when they do come forward are likely to be telling the truth about 98% of the time. When they are found to be lying it is most often a case of child custody where children in a divorce situation are manipulated by a vindictive parent to gain custody of the child.

These facts are not unique to the U.S but from the available data are close to universal in Western countries. No more proof of these facts is needed than to study the abuse scandal so well known now in the Catholic church. In those cases, victims took many years to report what they endured, remembered only certain traumatic details and could clearly point out their abuser.

The Ford – Kavanaugh hearings have ignited passions that go beyond the facts fueled by a “my side bias” that will only make it harder for survivors of abuse to be believed. Perhaps the most destructive of these is that men are under attack. This is a new rallying cry to protect men from being accused. The only men under attack though are those who have abused women. There is something to be said about teaching young men to value women, something thus far not well done in society and even more threatened now. But to turn that into a false victimization is to re-victimize an abused person and make potential victims more vulnerable.

Men are also sexually abused. I see many men in my practice who were sexually abused and, like women who were abused, did not report it. Some of these men were abused by older men and a few by women.

Abusers exist in all communities in every country. To pretend abuse does not take place in upper class neighborhoods or is much more likely to occur in socio-economically depressed areas simply perpetuates a lie. Of the available data, there is no distinction in abuse frequency by district.

To suggest that Dr. Ford lied because certain events could not be recalled is a logistical and strategic perversion. The brain will focus on very specific limited facts when under stress, especially severe stress. Dr. Ford’s descriptions meet that criteria. Despite some prejudiced claims, she also did not play the victim at her hearing. Her demeanor was appropriate and similar to abuse victims who come forward. Once a survivor of abuse decides to report they often present just as she did. To wit, most of the victims of Olympic doctor Larry Nassar presented their testimony as Dr. Ford did – clear, with specific detail and boldly.

Both Republicans and Democrats can be abused, and they are. We are at risk of being stuck in the politics to the detriment of the person. To help those who have been abused and to try and control the scourge of abuse the only proper direction is not to call a survivor’s report a “hoax”, but to educate people children in particular on how to protect themselves and not be afraid to report abuse if it happens and to display a sense of humanity and sensitivity that we all deserve – not the nastiness that politics have decompensated to.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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