After voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Senator Joe Manchin said he made his choice even if he supported survivors of sexual abuse and believed that "we must do something like a country" on sexual violence.
"I'm very worried … with the sexual abuse that people have endured," he said. "But I had to face the facts I had in front of me."
The testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and the confirmation of Kavanaugh despite that testimony, is an important example of what happens when survivors of abuse engage with systems that have never been designed to respond to their words or satisfy their needs.
Although few survivors testify before the Senate, the process by which Ford was forced to tell its story, and the senators' reaction to that story, is surprisingly similar to what survivors of abuse face every day in civil courts and criminal.
I am a student of domestic violence and my work has focused on analyzing the stories that survivors share when they seek security.
I also studied what happens when the legal system processes these stories.
What I found is a fundamental discrepancy between what the survivors reveal and what legal systems they need to feel to act.
Victims and non-aligned systems
The legal institutions ask the survivors to explain why they need legal protection, to tell their story of abuse. But, as noted by scholars Shonna Trinch and Susan Berk-Seligson, "What is necessary for those whose job it is to listen to them is a relationship, not a story".
The courts want a linear relationship, which provides an almost external accounting of abuse with specific names, dates and "facts". Survivors expect to be able to share what they have experienced in a way that reflects the way they have made sense of the event and its consequences.
The end result is that we have systems that should help, but in general we are not able to evaluate and respond adequately to the survivors' stories.
My research shows that the survivors who reveal their abuse often hear the first statements of support and conviction. These statements are quickly canceled by a "but" and an explanation of why someone will continue to behave as if that story had never been told.
How did we end up with this system?
Many scholars, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, argue that institutions, including the legal system, design policies based on stereotypes about survivors that rarely reflect their actual circumstances. This is especially true for survivors who are not "good victims" or who are not white middle-class women who have external documentation of physical abuse.
This explains how what appears to be a neutral system can produce different results for people based on intersections of gender, race, sexuality, age, status of citizenship and other aspects of social identities.
For example, the use of victim counselors by a prosecutor's office or a police department to help survivors put down protective orders that would keep them safe from their attackers seems to be an effective use of resources .
But many survivors have legal problems or they are wary of the legal system. They may not want to report the violence they experienced because they could become the goal of immigration or child protection services.
For many survivors, it is easier and safer not to report the abuse and pretend that the resulting trauma has never happened.
For a stranger, the choice not to report in the moment, or even years later, does not make sense.
They do not understand how the survivors compartmentalize to survive or even thrive. They do not see that the survivors evolve in complex ways of coping, as Ford's insistence on building double doors into his home so that she would be able to escape through one if the & rsquo; another has been blocked.
The rules of proof of the legal system, the probative requirements and the statutes of limitations reflect it.
What I found in my research is that the legal system wants brief and brief reports that focus on legally relevant abuse, contain specific information and include additional documentation.
Few survivors can create these types of narrations without assistance.
And many survivors – especially those who are black, are poor or do not have American citizenship, and who are not heterosexual – do not regard institutions as the legal system as a resource.
Those institutions are not designed taking into account their goals, needs and motivations. When they witness events such as the confirmation hearing, in which a woman with education and privilege reveals sexual violence and nothing happens, how can they expect to entrust their own narrative of abuse to others?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: "I am depressed, but only momentarily, when I can not get the fifth vote for something, I think it is very important, but then you go to the next challenge and give it all in. You know these important problems will not go away They will come back again and again, there will be another day, another day. "
For some survivors, today, the day after Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, it is finally that day. They are compiling petitions by order of protection, calling the police, seeking help.
But in some cases, they will be denied an order, the attacker will not be sanctioned or will be arrested by mistake, in place of, or together with their attacker. In the most difficult cases, like that of Melanie Edwards in the state of Washington, they will be killed by their rapists.
The United States should reconsider how to help survivors of violence and how to sanction perpetrators.
Help or hurt?
In the right environment and with the right support, the survivors will want to tell their stories and will be strengthened and validated by that new version.
However, the legal system is a contradictory system with complex and confusing bureaucratic procedures and often untrained staff. As the trauma scholar, Dr. Judith Herman, explains, "if one intentionally intends to design a system to provoke symptoms of traumatic stress, it might seem very similar to a court".
Survivors are asked to remember specific details about their victimization that they have repressed to survive. As a defender told me in an interview, "They are trying to forget what happened and here I am, asking them to write, with as much detail as possible, what they went through."
How can we create a more responsive system?
First: stop asking the survivors to tell them about their abuse. It is more harmful than useful, especially if we simply consider it as a "story" later.
If any form of external documentation exists, survivors should be able to provide it. If there is no external documentation, the narrative should be elicited in a support environment chosen by the survivor, with trained personnel available to help them better understand the types of judicial information and law enforcement needs.
Second: people accused of listening and responding to survivors must be instructed on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. While some are, many do not fully understand the ways in which domestic and sexual violence impact survivors. It is impossible for them to listen and respond appropriately unless they understand these dynamics.
Confirmation hearings and responses to Ford's testimony emphasized this idea. While the comments of some senators after his testimony reflected that they understood that they had to "support" and "believe" the survivors of violence, they also showed that they were not informed about how the survivors act in response and process sexual trauma.
It is as if they were saying: I believe, but I do not understand, so your story does not exist for me as it does not force me to act or influence my vote.
Finally: explore what it means to believe and support a survivor.
While the words "I believe" and "I support" are of paramount importance, they should not become words of order that replace actions. When you believe in a survivor and decide to support that survivor, you must act. You must make difficult decisions, even unpopular ones.
You have to work to adapt the system in order to support justice.
I think. Period. I think.