The Slatest

Donald Trump May Not Have the Most Advanced Understanding of How Sexual Assault Trauma Works

Donald Trump stands in front of a giant American flag, while rally attendees hold signs in the background.
Donald Trump at a rally in Las Vegas this week not reading up on the latest research on sexual trauma.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump joined the chorus of Republican men implying that Christine Blasey Ford is a liar on Friday, tweeting that if her alleged sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh “was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities”:

I am shocked, shocked that none of Trump’s trusted and capable aides had thought to show him the research on responses to sexual trauma, which may help him understand why the 15-year-old Ford didn’t file a police report immediately after being assaulted. Less than a quarter of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, making it the least-reported major crime. Research from the Department of Justice has shown that women refrain from reporting sex crimes to the police for a number of reasons: They don’t believe the police can do anything to help, they don’t want to risk retaliation (more than 70 percent of sexual assaults are committed by perpetrators the victim knows), they don’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble, or they consider sexual assault too “personal” to discuss.

The way Ford has been treated by Kavanaugh partisans has, if anything, reinforced the dynamics that keep victims quiet. If she worried that a report to parents, peers, or law enforcement might not be taken seriously, she was right! If she assumed Kavanaugh’s friends and colleagues would argue what happened was just some silly high-school fun, that all boys do what he allegedly did, she was right! If she thought she’d be accused of lying, misremembering, tarnishing a good man’s name, engaging in immoral behavior, and being a slut, she was right!

The suggestion that Ford may have mistaken Kavanaugh for a classmate who resembles him isn’t the most shameful insult to her character she’s endured in the past week, but it does reveal egregious, willful ignorance of the psychology of sexual violence. “Human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially over time,” Tucker Carlson said on his Fox News show this week. “Past a certain point, the past is unknowable.” But Ford isn’t trying for the first time to remember a night from 36 years ago—she has been thinking about it for 36 years. And experts say that while trauma and time can blur some incidental details of an assault, like the number of people in the room, the central components of an emotionally charged event—such as the identity of a perpetrator the victim knows, as is the case in Ford’s allegation—remain clear over time. Trauma suppresses the part of the brain responsible for translating observations and emotions into words. Ford may have been unwilling or unable to tell others about her alleged assault until a therapy session several years ago, but there’s no evidence to suggests she can’t remember what happened.