This September, Christine Blasey Ford, PhD, a California research psychologist and professor, publicly announced that Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in a locked room when they were teenagers in 1982. Following her allegations, two more women came forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, both from the 1980s. Dr. Ford ultimately agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee, and did so on September 27. Since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Dr. Ford has maintained she has no further plans to pursue her sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh, although she feels she did the right thing by testifying and has “no regrets.”
The effects of an assault often last a lifetime, and can impact survivors’ physical as well as mental health. Dr. Ford, for example, explained how the assault “derailed” her for four or five years, as she struggled academically and socially. After that, the assault haunted her for her entire adult life, and has even impacted her marriage. Short-term impacts may arise from PTSD symptoms or from Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Longer-term effects of sexual trauma can include high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and high cholesterol.
Beyond both the assault and the process of reliving one’s trauma when similar stories arise, survivors often face an additional trauma when their community and even their government fail to believe them or to take action. In an interview with Time magazine, Harvard professor and PTSD researcher Karestan Koenan said that Kavanaugh’s confirmation will make many survivors feel as if sharing what happened to them had no impact. “Speaking out and feeling invalidated—or worse, shamed—can be devastating and make all the reactions worse,” Koenan said. The repeated failure of the government to hold politicians accountable for sexual misconduct sends the message to sexual assault survivors that accusing their attacker will not only bring few, if any, repercussions for the perpetrator, but that they might even be shunned for making such an accusation.
The resulting perception that the process of accusing someone—and not being believed—might actually be more traumatic than the assault can discourage past and future survivors from reporting the incident and from seeking treatment is one does develop PTSD. Failure to receive treatment early-on for PTSD is associated with worse recovery outcomes, while strong social support from the beginning is shown to be integral to a successful recovery. Research has shown that feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety or depression are often more intense and harmful when the survivor’s family, peers, and community authorities do not support him or her. These researchers also remind us that a variety of rape myths promote victim-blaming practices, which contribute to the development of PTSD. (One common rape myth is that women often make false reports of rape. Contrary to this belief, research has shown that only around 2% of sexual assault accusations are determined to be false.)
In the wake of such public accusations and public acceptance of assault, it is important to consider how effectively we are providing survivors with support following an assault. Sexual assault programs are becoming more common at least across college campuses, but they are not always able to sufficiently help survivors recover. Researchers and program designers should look to the failures of existing education and recovery programs to identify specific areas for improvement.
Failing to believe or aid survivors of sexual violence is a public health issue, and needs to be treated as such.
If you or someone you know is in need of guidance, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit them at RAINN.org.
 Chivers-Wilson, Kaitlyn A. (2006). Sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder: A review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatments. McGill Journal of Medicine. 9(2):111-118.