I watched 10 minutes of the Sept. 27 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing before I had to turn it off in disgust. Seeing Brett Kavanaugh yell, stammer, and refuse to answer the committee’s questions immediately brought me back to my own campus hearing at the University of Notre Dame.
During the fall semester of my sophomore year, two students raped me. One of the perpetrators was a classmate, the other was a friend of his visiting from Purdue University. In the months following the rape, I felt a mixture of crippling pain, embarrassment, and sadness. Most of all, I felt shame. Like somehow what happened was my fault. Like somehow I was asking for it. Like somehow my pleas to stop weren’t enough and I should have done more.
Aside from confiding in a few close friends, I stayed silent for months. Finally, by the end of the spring semester, I decided I needed to come forward to protect myself and other students. Over the next eight months, with the help of the nonprofit SurvJustice, I reported the assault to the administrations of both Notre Dame and Purdue.
During my Notre Dame hearing, I sat in a small conference room with both of my rapists. The Notre Dame student was the respondent, and the Purdue student was one of his witnesses. For five hours, I recounted the details of what happened to me and answered the administrative panel’s questions. Kavanaugh’s demeanor during his hearing was identical to that of the man who raped me. He was angry, arrogant, and almost never gave a straight answer. During those 10 minutes that I could stomach watching the Senate hearing, one thing became perfectly clear to me: the Honorable Brett Kavanaugh was not telling the whole truth.
Deciding to report was very difficult but a critical step in my healing process. I found my voice again by pursuing justice. I was able to tell my story and I knew I did everything I could to hold the men who raped me accountable for their actions. But justice isn’t always guaranteed. In the end, the Notre Dame student who raped me was expelled, the Purdue student who raped me was allowed to graduate–and now Brett Kavanaugh is going on to become a Supreme Court Justice.
What Brett Kavanaugh is alleged to have done is not some teenage drunken mistake; it’s sexual assault. And his confirmation sends a clear message that government officials care more politics than about protecting survivors. It means that even if the senators did believe Kavanaugh’s accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, they simply don’t care. They don’t care about what Kavanaugh did, the type of person he is, and the way he has impacted her life. And since they don’t care about Dr. Ford, why should we believe that they care about any other survivor?
This process has left me scared for the future of the fight for survivors’ rights. The willingness of government officials to ignore the allegations against Kavanaugh and the refusal to thoroughly investigate them is indicative of how this administration views the issue of sexual violence overall.
At the same time that senators are voting to give an alleged repeat perpetrator a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is undermining Title IX by rolling back protections for survivors and instituting new measures that only serve to favor accused students. The message sent to survivors is that we simply cannot win since everything is stacked against us.
When survivors come forward at the campus level, they already face significant barriers, and that will only get worse under the proposed regulations. Schools will not have to investigate their complaints under the new proposed regulations if the incident occurred off-campus. Accused students will be able to retraumatize their victims by cross-examining them. Survivors won’t receive the right to appeal when accused students are permitted to do so.
When survivors do not come forward immediately because they fear they won’t be believed and may be mistreated, they are attacked for not reporting sooner, as we saw with Dr. Ford. When we seek to hold perpetrators accountable at the campus level, we are told we are ruining their lives; yet Dr. Ford was told that she waited too long to tell her story. In other words, survivors are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. At what point will perpetrators finally be held accountable for their actions?
Still, despite Kavanaugh’s confirmation and a sense of hopelessness, I have to believe that things are changing. I try to focus on the small victories that emerge for survivors, including the fact that Dr. Ford was treated as a credible witness. Many of the Judiciary Committee members treated her with respect and demonstrated that they took her allegations seriously. She was given enough time to answer questions, granted breaks upon request, and was never accused of lying. Some senators even explicitly said “I believe you.” This may seem like a low bar for what counts as progress, but in truth, it was a vast improvement over the treatment of Anita Hill in 1991 when she testified about Clarence Thomas sexually harassing her.
Even more, I see progress in my day-to-day life. Over the past two weeks, my social media feeds have been filled with praise and encouragement for Dr. Ford. On the day of the hearing, students throughout Notre Dame’s campus were handing out “I staND with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford” stickers. It is clear the public conversation surrounding sexual violence is shifting to encourage support for survivors. And as a survivor, the support for Dr. Ford legitimizes my decision to go public with my rape.
I was raped before stories of sexual violence became daily headlines. The #MeToo movement started to gain national attention while I was in the middle of my second campus reporting process at Purdue. I watched as celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer were removed from positions of power amid reports of sexual harassment and violence. Then, in December 2017, Time magazine named the “Silence Breakers” as its 2017 Person of the Year.
Going through two reporting processes was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was emotionally draining, incredibly time-consuming, and flat-out exhausting. Yet I found the motivation to keep going from the stories of women like Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Aly Raisman. I remember thinking that if these women can stand up to men who hold such high positions of power, I could come forward, too.
I hope other survivors feel the same way as they reflect on the bravery of individuals like Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and others who speak out despite having nothing to gain and everything to lose by coming forward. Yes, Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a devastating blow–but it will not stop us.
I feel more invigorated than ever to continue fighting for survivors’ rights. I will share my story with others. I will educate my peers about why these issues are so important. For the remainder of my senior year, I will work on initiatives at Notre Dame that prevent sexual violence and support survivors. And in November, I will vote for candidates for House and Senate seats who support and prioritize survivors’ rights.
To my fellow survivors, please do not give up. Despite this setback, the national conversation surrounding sexual violence is changing. Each and every one of you has a voice. Together, our voices have the power to change the nation. We are strong, we are powerful, and we will not be silenced.
Sabrina Barthelmes is a senior Business Analytics major at the University of Notre Dame.