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Christine Blasey Ford's Treatment May Impact Sexual Assault Survivors

Sexual assault survivors will be watching how Ford is treated, and one expert says it may determine whether they speak out or not.
Posted at 4:40 PM, Sep 26, 2018

Public reactions to Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, may impact sexual assault survivors, as some see themselves reflected in Ford.

"Any time a sexual assault survivor has to retell her story in a context, even if it's a small context, ... it can be re-traumatizing having to focus on the details again."

That's forensic and clinical psychologist Debra Borys. She has been evaluating sexual assault and sexual harassment cases in civil litigations for years. She says actions like testifying may re-trigger traumatic experiences.

"With trauma, repeating the details tends to conjure up and trigger emotions, bodily sensations or images from the original event. And then adding the high-profile national or international audience that there will be for [Ford's] testimony, ... I think magnifies that many times," Borys said.

Kavanaugh has denied these allegations, and both he and Ford will testify separately Thursday. Borys also said answering the kinds of questions Ford will face could be very difficult for survivors.

"Physically, some survivors actually will have ... what we call 'body memories' re-triggered when they have to tell about the assault again. And because they may also be experiencing a hostile listener or interrogator as re-victimizing them, it makes it even more potent trigger."

In Borys' litigation experiences, survivors may have memory lapses or hesitations while presenting traumatic narratives. Borys says someone with a background in psychology — like Ford's — may have a heightened self awareness about her experience and feelings, meaning she may not be as triggered when she testifies.

"She probably has a certain level of core confidence and sophistication. And she's talking about things that are very psychological in nature, even though it's her own personal and very difficult experience, so that it might help her," Borys said.

Since Ford's allegations, two other women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. While Ford has some public support, she has also faced attacks on her character, death threats and has been forced out of her home. Borys says this may not stop women from sharing their assault stories to people they trust, but speaking out in public is a different matter. 

"Whether they come forward more publicly, as happened with the #MeToo movement, I think it will depend on how they perceive Dr. Ford being treated. With the #MeToo movement, ... there were powerful voices in support of the women. And I think that led to many more women, including celebrity women coming forward. ... If, on the other hand, Dr. Ford is put through something similar or worse to what people perceive Anita Hill was put through, then I think it will be a deterrent to sexual assault survivors coming out publicly."