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Why the Kavanaugh hearings hit home

In late September, Prof. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with historic allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the context of his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Riveted, a global audience tuned in to watch their respective testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The rhetoric on both sides ratcheted up. The world watched.

The dynamics at play in the Kavanaugh hearings were unpleasantly familiar to me, as they were to many women. In the past 12 months alone, I have acted for three young lawyers or law students who were harassed by senior and respected members of the bar. Like Blasey Ford, these women paid a steep personal price for calling out sexual misconduct, even in this #MeToo era.

Their stories differed, but their goals were the same: to protect themselves and others without sacrificing themselves in the process. As young women in positions of relative powerlessness, they knew the stakes of taking on a senior partner. A few behind-the-scenes comments about competence or character can be all that it takes to both discredit allegations and derail a career. Still, they wanted to do the right thing. Although their respective allegations of harassment were all substantiated (and then promptly buried by confidentiality agreements), they all ended up changing jobs in the end. Most of the men continue to practise unscathed. And I count these as “good” outcomes.

As the Kavanaugh hearings unfolded, the story seemed all too familiar.

The ostensible purpose of the hearing was to determine Kavanaugh’s fitness for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the United States. But as the all-male Republican faction on the committee fed questions to a “female assistant” and Kavanaugh drew head-scratching praise from Senator Lindsey Graham for his half-crazed rantings about political “hit jobs,” it started to feel like there was something bigger at stake. In many ways, the process became a litmus test for just how far the women’s movement has (or has not) carried us. And when it became clear that the old, patriarchal system would prevail yet again, an outpouring of rage quickly followed.

Canadian women were not immune to this rage. To the contrary, many felt it acutely. The anger bubbled up on social media (I may have issued an impetuous call to “burn it all down”). It found voice in daily interactions. Among women lawyers, the sense of disempowerment was particularly acute. We are taught to trust in process and fairness, but those ideals, it seemed, had failed us. But why did we take it so personally?

Most obviously, there are countless among us who have experienced sexual violence. Unlike the women I represent, most have chosen to keep quiet. The reasons behind their silence are both deeply personal and depressingly universal. Shame. Self-blame. Fear of not being believed. Fear of repercussions.

These experiences made it excruciating to watch as every rape myth in the book was trotted out to discredit Ford: her delayed report (even though the doctrine of recent complaint was thrown out years ago); her incomplete memory (even though neuroscience tells us that memories of trauma are more sensorial than visual; in other words, the sound of laughter is precisely the type of thing you are likely to remember); the suggestion that there was no evidence to support her allegations (even though testimony *is* evidence). It was not hard for the viewer to imagine personal experiences being discounted in the same heartbreaking way.

But the emotion unleashed by the Kavanaugh hearings was about more than just sexual assault. It was also a reaction to the systemic imbalance of power on display.

Ford’s testimony before the committee was measured, thoughtful and responsive. You could almost see her trying to make her explosive allegations more palatable through the calm tone of her voice. The act of carefully measuring one’s words in order to be heard is a recognizable — and infuriating — phenomenon to most women. If we want to be taken seriously, we do not have the luxury of letting our emotions run free; words like “hysterical” and “overwrought” stand at the ready to discredit us.

By contrast, Kavanaugh offered a melodramatic monologue of self-pity. He ranted and raved, broke down into tears and lashed out at anyone who had the temerity to ask him a relevant and probing question. Somehow, instead of being labelled “hysterical,” he was lauded by those in power for delivering an impassioned defence of his character. The palpable double standard was galling and exhausting to witness.

The Kavanaugh hearings amplified what women who experience harassment every day know: that calling out this type of behaviour is still putting yourself on the line. And that, in many cases, the consequences for calling out sexual misconduct are still greater than the consequences for committing it.

Gillian Hnatiw is a partner at Adair Goldblatt Bieber in Toronto and one of the country’s foremost practitioners in the law of sexual misconduct.

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