Jurisprudence

Christine Blasey Ford’s Timing Isn’t Suspect

It doesn’t matter when assault victims speak up. People will always say they are too late.

Photo collage of Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and Sen. Chuck Grassley
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call; Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images; Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images.

“But why did she wait so long?” A woman came forward Sunday with credible and specific claims about an alleged sexual assault she suffered at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when she was 15 and he was 17. And that was the principal objection raised: that her timing, and the timing of Senate Democrats, is the material issue here.

Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University who teaches in a consortium with Stanford University, came forward in the Washington Post as the previously anonymous woman whose story surfaced last week. She claims to have been attacked by Kavanaugh and a classmate at a high school party in the 1980s. In her account to the Post, she explained that while she had chosen not to publicly accuse him, she had been forced to do so after her story, which she had shared with her congresswoman in late July, was leaked to the media. Reporters were staking out her place of work and showing up at her house.

Senate Democrats have called for an airing of her claims on the merits. Some of their Republican colleagues have now joined them—Sen. Jeff Flake was the first on Sunday to say that the vote ought to be delayed. But the prevailing reaction from Senate Republicans was to dismiss her allegations as strategic and cynical and too late. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement in which he seemed to claim that Ford was untruthful, based solely in the timing of the revelations: “It raises a lot of questions about Democrats’ tactics and motives to bring this to the rest of the committee’s attention only now rather than during these many steps along the way. … Senator Feinstein should publicly release the letter she received back in July so that everyone can know what she’s known for weeks.” (CNN has released a redacted version.)

Sen. Lindsey Graham released a statement agreeing to at least hear Ford’s claims, while still disputing her decision to wait until the last minute to come forward. Sen. Susan Collins echoed this sentiment: “What is puzzling to me is the Democrats, by not bringing this out earlier, after having had this information for more than six weeks, have managed to cast a cloud of doubt on both the professor and the judge,” she told the New York Times on Sunday night. “If they believed Professor Ford, why didn’t they surface this information earlier so that he could be questioned about it? And if they didn’t believe her and chose to withhold the information, why did they decide at the 11th hour to release it? It is really not fair to either of them the way it is was handled.”

Why do women wait until the last possible second to speak out about sexual harassment and assault claims? This is exactly the line of questioning Senate Republicans used to smear Anita Hill back when she testified against Clarence Thomas. Why didn’t she lodge these complaints until he was poised to sit on the highest court of the land, given that he had previously been appointed to prestigious positions?

It’s a funny question. It’s actually related to the question I asked last week, which was: Why do women come forward with these claims at all? The prevailing Republican argument seems to be that if a woman was truly the victim of a violent act of sexual aggression, she ought to have reported it the very instant it happened, so the decision to wait to report it on the eve of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote clearly represents craven dirty tricks.

Here’s one problem with that analysis: It’s only the “eleventh hour” because Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell have decided this hearing needs to happen at light speed. Indeed, the pacing apparently necessitated withholding the vast majority of the nominee’s records from the National Archives, which they argued was fine because the documents were being vetted by a friend of the nominee’s. In fact, the same need for lightning speed required that Kavanaugh be rushed through the process so quickly that it necessitated tens of thousands of pages of documents to be sent to the full committee the night before confirmation hearings began.

The definition of power must include the power to set the timetable in which facts are discernible, and Senate Republicans, who held a Supreme Court seat open for almost a year, are now unwilling to hold one open for three months. The reason the eleventh hour wasn’t, say, the third hour is entirely because the timetable has been set by those who wanted to short-circuit meaningful scrutiny. So the complaint that it’s too late in the process is hard to swallow.

That is one reason why complaints about Ford’s timing ring hollow. But here is the deeper reason why women don’t publicly report their assaults until the last possible instant and until they absolutely have to: Women who are victims start the clock at the moment of their trauma. Men who are perpetrators start it at the moment they are caught.

The entire history of women complaining about sexual assault has been recorded on men’s time. In case you’re interested, here is what it looks like from women’s perspectives: They are attacked. They wait. They persuade themselves they deserved it or asked for it. They try to shift along. They tell a partner, or they tell a spouse. They tell a therapist. They tell their parents and maybe their friends. They must weigh, at every step, the likelihood of being dismissed, as Ford is now being dismissed, as a liar and a hysteric. This is a trauma that they may carry around for years, burying it and excavating it and hiding it again. They debate speaking up. They realize what happens when they speak up, by watching what happens when other women speak up. They make little deals with themselves in which they promise that if the man ever is poised to do real harm to others, they will surely speak up.

Why don’t women come forward on the very day it happens? Because they have friends and hopes and dreams and confusion and alcohol and hope and every Hollywood movie ever. Because for a very long time, it’s not worth the cost.

In Ford’s case, the decision to come forward on the record in September was not an active choice but instead the result of a position she was forced into after her anonymous account was made public against her will. Consider Ford’s explanation to the Post:

As the story snowballed, Ford said, she heard people repeating inaccuracies about her and, with the visits from reporters, felt her privacy being chipped away. Her calculation changed.

“These are all the ills that I was trying to avoid,” she said, explaining her decision to come forward. “Now I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation.”

It’s also important to be very specific about what is actually coming out now, in this so-called eleventh hour. Because the allegation is not new—it is simply new to us. Ford sent a letter detailing her story to her congresswoman in late July. The Post story notes that she also sent a tip to the paper itself in early July: “Though Ford had contacted The Post, she declined to speak on the record for weeks as she grappled with concerns about what going public would mean for her and her family—and what she said was her duty as a citizen to tell the story.” This woman has been grappling with her story, and whether and how she should tell it, for months and for years. For her, this event started when she was 15 and unspooled over years of revelation, medical help, and ambivalence from those in power.

For the men who commit these acts, the clock starts never. Consider Brett Kavanaugh’s statement on the matter, released Monday morning: “This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes—to her or to anyone. Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday.” For most of their lives, what they may have done never even occurs to them.
They were drunk. Or they forgot. Or they were alone. Or they were in a group. And people will cover and apologize and excuse them. People will say, “Thirty-five years ago? He was a child.” And they will forget that 35 years ago, she was also a child—except that she has lugged this around on her back for decades and only got brave enough to tell anyone six years ago.

Most of the women I know spent Sunday afternoon recalling a time a man grabbed her at a party and covered her mouth and rubbed against her. It happens so damn often than we all have the same story. But we didn’t report it in real time because that’s just what it is, and boys will be boys, and also we will soon learn that if we come to report it in men’s time, we will be told we were too late. We are all always too late, because if we really were worried about these types of transgressions, we would have had the wherewithal to stop them before they even happened. Once you have become a victim, you are already too late.

For victims, time splits open on the day of the assault. For the accused, time splits open on the day they are named. And yet again, as was the case for Anita Hill, the power to decide when something is “too late” to matter is apparently in the hands of the same people who have the power to set the timetable, and those people do not seem to have a good understanding of trauma. Let me say it yet again: I have no idea what happened to Ford in the 1980s and what part Kavanaugh may have played, but I am inclined to believe that if she reported it in 2012 to a therapist, it cannot be said that she made it up just yesterday or even last July. That women report assaults by powerful men at all remains difficult to comprehend, and attacks on Ford that began before she was even named show why. That women who eventually do report such assaults do not do so in a time frame that is convenient for powerful men says far more about who sets the schedule than who is telling the truth.