Christine Blasey Ford alleges that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh pinned her down to a bed, groped her, tried to take her clothing off and covered her mouth to keep her from screaming.
This is sexual assault, but it is something else, too. It leads the reader to believe something more might have happened if Kavanaugh, who denies the allegations, had gotten his way.
Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale University with Kavanaugh when they were undergraduates, told the New Yorker that he exposed himself at a party when they were freshmen in college. Ramirez acknowledged gaps in her memory, but said she remembered another student shouting Kavanaugh’s name.
In my own life, I have been in similar situations: times when what happened was bad, but something worse seemed imminent. Those situations lead me to question not only the meaning of the events themselves, but also the language I use to describe what happened.
Lately, I find myself asking: What name do I use to refer to the night my taxi driver followed me into my hotel and tried to restrain me inside my room — before I managed to slip past him, run into the street, and escape? What about when a man tried to get me to undress beneath him — but after minutes of pushing him off me and imploring him to let me go, he eventually got up and walked off angrily, leaving me alone? How do I describe the man who hid my clothes from me, tried to push me onto a bed, and wouldn’t let me leave — before I made it out of the room prior to him doing anything worse?
Rape, assault, catcalling: some kinds of sexual violence and harassment I’ve experienced are fairly easy to name. But for years, I’ve been wondering: what about the many “almosts” — the times I narrowly escaped violence? What do I call those?
With the recent assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, this is no longer a question that keeps me up at night; it’s a question we’re all faced with.
So how do we describe this genre of assault: unrelenting, destructive — and incomplete? How do we describe danger that never quite manifests as horribly as it could?
The use of a modifier like “attempted” seems to indicate that in the end, nothing bad happened. “Incomplete” implies that there’s a particular checkbox or act that qualifies an assault as “bad enough.” Apparently, we’re holding onto an idea about what counts as sexual violence, and disturbingly, it has to do with the perpetrator’s intent, rather than the crime’s impact. If he didn’t get exactly what he wanted, it wasn’t finished — it could’ve been worse. This mindset ignores the fact that all forms of sexual assault, no matter exactly what a perpetrator can get away with before the assault stops, or what sex acts are forced, affect the victim.
But these modifiers and their implications ignore the cold, hard science of trauma’s impact.
Approximately 70 percent of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
It’s not just the degree of impact that matters when it comes to this particular type of naming — it’s the fact that we want to sweep the near misses under the rug, and the near misses make up a huge portion of the violence we experience. Naming this category is important because it speaks to its omnipresence in women’s lives. We don’t have names for these incidents because we don’t want to acknowledge their existence, their frequency. The #MeToo movement has brought to light many stories of sexual assault, but we still struggle with this particular kind of story.
I do not know a single woman who doesn’t have a story that falls under this category: a blind date turned threatening, a group of men following her down an empty street, a partner throwing a mug inches from, but not hitting, her face. I’ve seen the bruises inflicted by men trying to rape women, but since they didn’t, in the end, rape them, those bruises aren’t bad enough to be named, aren’t bad enough to validate so many women’s real and devastating trauma.
But these bruises, both seen and unseen, are bad enough for the women who experience them. And they need to be named.
I’ve heard some activists suggest the term “sexual assault” for attempted violence, and that does encompass some instances. But what if the attempt is not physical? What if the threat meant being screamed at, or followed, or obstructed — but not touched?
The fact that these incidents evade categorization makes them, if anything, more insidious. These instances need an inclusive name, so we can see how widespread this pattern is. So we can start focusing on trauma’s impact, not just perpetrators’ “success” rates. So we can start seeing the patterns of how violence infiltrates women’s lives, see the shadows such violence casts. Because if we can’t put a name to a threat, how can we prevent it? How can we stop it?