Submitted by Jessica Davidson to the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2018
Chairman Grassley, Ranking Member Feinstein, and esteemed Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee:
Thank you for requesting my written testimony. I submit these remarks to you today with two perspectives that I hold: one, as Interim Executive Director of End Rape on Campus (EROC), a national nonprofit that works to end campus sexual violence through direct support for survivors and their communities; prevention through education; and policy reform at the campus, local, state, and federal levels. We envision a world in which each individual has an educational experience free from violence, and until then, that all survivors are believed, trusted, and supported. Each year we assist nearly 1000 survivors and their families directly, conduct educational campaigns, support student activists, and advocate for policy reform efforts that reach millions of individuals. I have met or spoken with what I estimate to be several thousand survivors of sexual assault in my work as a student activist and since I began working with EROC. Because of this, I have an extremely strong understanding of the patterns survivors of sexual assault exhibit in regards to reporting, especially survivors who are young, students, under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the assault, or many combinations of the above factors.
I also come to you today wearing the badge of survivor: On January 1, 2015, when I was a junior at the University of Denver, I was raped by an acquaintance at an off-campus party closely tied to an on-campus fraternity.
Like so many survivors, immediately after I was sexually assaulted, I did not think at all about reporting. At that point, I was still in such a state of raw shock that I continually referred to the instance as “a bad night.” I couldn’t put it into words, because calling it what I knew it was deep down, rape, made it real, and my brain was trying to—I believe—protect me from the psychological shock and trauma of what happened to me. In the aftermath of my assault, the few immediate things on my mind were: 1) Showering 2) Getting to the nearest Walgreens so I could purchase Plan B and ensure I did not get pregnant 3) Driving to my parent’s home an hour and a half north of my college so that I could be in a place of comfort to me, rather than my apartment, which I’d only moved into a few days prior after returning to the university from studying abroad. I did not, at any time in the days or first several weeks after my assault, even think about reporting to the police or university. I did not even think about telling anyone. I wanted to focus on getting through my classes, making it through my internship as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms began to emerge, and, quite simply, surviving.
The actions I’m describing—to not share my experience, to focus on survival rather than reporting—were, my experience at EROC would find, extremely typical actions for survivors of sexual assault. In fact, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), two thirds of all sexual assaults go unreported. There is no singular response to trauma, and all survivors respond differently and may need different things. While I don’t purport to be a scientist, I have learned that much of that is because of the neurobiology of trauma, and how experiencing sexual violence literally causes physical changes to a survivor’s brain. Just like a traumatic or brain injury, what it takes to recover in life after trauma looks different for everyone. Survivor responses and reporting cannot be prescripted to a checklist that determines validity or invalidity.
What I did a year later was, admittedly, less typical of survivors, especially in 2016, over a year before the #MeToo movement came to the forefront of our national dialogue — I spoke publicly about what happened to me. The response I received was indicative of just one of the many reasons why so many survivors never come forward. While I did receive an overwhelming amount of support from many, I also received significant harassment on social media, especially Twitter, from many that I did not know—and many that I did know. This harassment included threats of violence, suggestions that I was lying, suggestions that rape is not a problem at all, and more. The harassment I experienced for coming forward, even without naming my assailant, was demeaning, diminishing, and minimizing of my very worst and most personal trauma. I knew such harassment was possible, even likely, but I came forward anyways. But, having experienced it firsthand, I find it extremely understandable that many survivors would seek to avoid such harm and compounded trauma.
Despite my knowledge that such harassment would be likely, and despite the extreme fear I had of facing, being retaliated against by, or even momentarily seeing and being in the same space as my attacker, I came forward publicly in the hopes that I could change rape culture to make it easier for other survivors in the future. I was under the belief that a primary underlying cause of the way survivors were being treated was a lack of understanding of the survivor experience, and that by sharing mine, perhaps I could help non-survivors understand what I’d been through and inspire them to join survivors in building a world that is better for survivors, with more trauma-informed systems and cultural competence. And last fall, when the #MeToo movement forced a national awakening, I really believed that my coming forward, and that of the many brave survivors before me, wasn’t for not. I prayed that the path that had been paved by those who told their stories at great cost to themselves in order to educate non-survivors would give others the space to do so in the future too, if they wanted, but also to hopefully help educate non-survivors so that future survivors would not feel it necessary to come forward simply to help others understand their pain.
While I did report, it is understandable why so many do not. As a key question in the public debate surrounding the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh has been why survivors don’t report to the police, it is worth noting that according to RAINN, some of the top cited reasons for not reporting are, in descending order: fearing retaliation (like what I experienced), believing the police would not do anything to help, believing it was a personal matter, believing it was not important enough to report, not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble, and believing that the police could not do anything to help, which is different than believing the police would not do anything to help.
The only thing I can liken the harassment and doubt survivors face upon coming forward is the real-life version of a nightmare I have had, and you may have had some version of too: over the course of the dream, as you attempt to talk to or interact with others, you panickedly come to the realization that you are invisible to everyone in the room around you, and cannot be seen or heard. You may be familiar with this dream, or have seen TV and movie scenes where something similar is depicted: someone is seeing, hearing, and experiencing what is happening all around them, but when they speak, no one reacts to them. They are standing in front of their reality, demanding to be heard, and they are not heard. There is no response to their words. They are screaming into the void, demanding to be seen and heard, but they are not. Now imagine that you go tell people what you just definitively experienced, and no one believes you.
That scream into the void is how it can feel to be a survivor asking to be believed and supported. That scream into the void is how I felt when people on campus knew through the whispermill who my rapist was and stayed friends with him anyway. It is how I felt when my campus violated then-enacted federal guidance and best practices in their poor handling of my Title IX case. It is how I felt watching the American electorate not view committing sexual violence as unquestionably disqualifying for any elected office, let alone the Presidency. And it is how I, and so many other survivors have felt watching this week’s debate about whether or not the claims of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick were disqualifying for a lifetime appointment to our highest court.
This week, survivors of sexual assault around the country have been screaming, and many of us have felt our screams only received by the void, and certainly not by this committee. The way this committee has handled this hearing,failing to uphold its obligation to carefully consider these allegations has, to me, not shown any type of serious consideration.
Tens of thousands of survivors of sexual assault have shared their most personal and painful stories online and in-person, in the hopes that our elected officials will stop the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, or at the very least, show that careful consideration is being given with a more thorough investigation process. Many survivors have shared personal details they would not publicly share under different circumstances, including in very public places like mass protests, on the news, and online. Recounting gut-wrenching details of one’s own trauma is a horrible thing to do. But many survivors have described an inordinate pressure to share some of their worst horrors in order to be heard by this committee. They are doing so not necessarily because other survivors are pressuring them to do so, but because they feel their screams need to get louder and more gruesome in order for this committee to take them seriously. Since these allegations became public, I have seen survivors putting their trauma on display and bearing more than they should have to in a desperate attempt to be heard and for survivor stories to be taken seriously.
This is not the first time survivors have been asked to do so in order for their traumas and stories to be considered valid. Millions of people around the world did so this fall when the #MeToo movement took on a new level of public discourse. My peers and I did so over the past several years to bring attention to the crisis of campus sexual assault. So did those who came before us when Take Back The Night protests began in the 1960s and the anti-rape and domestic violence movements began in the United States in the 1970s. So did the many individuals who had the incredible courage to come forward alone, without the momentum of a movement.
As I watch this pattern repeat itself over and over again, I must ask: How many more times will survivors of sexual assault have to show our scars in order to prove we were bleeding?
How many more ways do survivors need to beg to be believed before this committee will prioritize a process that is fair to survivors over political expediency?
How many more viral online movements must be created before the incredible harm and trauma we’ve experienced is enough to be taken seriously when a survivor comes forward?
And why is the burden always shifted to us, those who have experienced harm?
I have heard some esteemed members of the Senate state this week that the question on the table in today’s hearing is not about whether or not survivors deserve belief and fair treatment, but is about the qualifications of Judge Kavanaugh. While I disagree, as I believe that committing sexual violence is unquestionably disqualifying for any form of public leadership, regardless of party, I hope we can all agree that how a survivors’ claim is handled is indicative of whether or not this committee, and ultimately the United States Senate, shares the belief that survivors deserve to be believed and supported.
How thoroughly and considerately the committee handles the claims not just of Dr. Blasey Ford, but also of Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, is, to me as a survivor, a direct indicator of how it feels about survivors of sexual assault. And to not treat those claims in a trauma-informed and thoughtful way that centers humanity and personhood above political expediency is to send a clear message: survivors’ trauma is less important than the politics of the day.
Such a message would truly be a failure of our democratically elected representatives to represent the people they serve.
An American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. More than an estimated 17,700,00 women and 2,780,000 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape since 1998. 3 million college students will be sexually assaulted this Fall alone. 18,900 military service members bravely serving our country experienced sexual assault in 2014. And, 1 in every 4 voters in the United States is a survivor, and more than half of all voters in the United States know a survivor.
Survivors make up a significant portion of each United States Senator’s constituencies. And survivors everywhere deserve to know that if they come forward, they will be taken seriously. This committee can do so today by suspending tomorrow’s vote and this rushed process, conducting an FBI investigation into all allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, and speaking to other survivors who have come forward with allegations.
To do anything less is a betrayal of survivors everywhere. And believe me when I say, survivors are watching.
If the committee has any further questions about anything I’ve provided in my testimony today, or any other questions related to my expertise, I am glad to answer any questions to the best of my ability and can be reached at the below contact information.
Thank you very much for your time.
Sincerely and In Solidarity,
Interim Executive Director, End Rape on Campus