Recent Comments

    Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford Share Advice on Surviving Trauma

    Just as Anita Hill’s testimony did in 1991, Christine Blasey Ford’s account last week of sexual harassment inflicted by Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge opened the deep wounds of assault survivors. The anger and pain were unmistakable in the voices of activists Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, two women who confronted Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) in an elevator outside of his office. Through tears Gallagher shouted, “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you are telling all women in America, that they don’t matter.”

    Emergence of the Phrase ‘Sexual Harassment’

    If such women had dared to express their views in prior centuries in America, they likely would have been medicated, declared insane and placed in a mental institution for the rest of their lives. Oppression of women through the use of medicine and psychiatry—paralleling the historic usage of these tools against LGBT individuals—was common for centuries, and sadly still exists today throughout much of the world. The individuals who undergo this kind of treatment might even be considered the “lucky” ones, compared to the female Black slaves and poor domestic workers of all races who were regularly victims of sexual coercion during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Young progressives are now often harshly critical of second wave feminism, but the women’s liberation movement that it helped to spearhead led to a critical turning point. Before 1975, the phrase “sexual harassment” was not part of common legal vocabulary. It was added to our terminology that year when a group of women at Cornell University used the phrase to describe what happened to former Cornell employee Carmita Dickerson Wood, who declared that she was sexually abused by her male supervisor. The already established feminists’ network allowed, and provided a safety net for, other women to share their own stories of abuse, with Hill and Blasey Ford being among the most prominent to do so in recent decades.

    Anita Hill’s Testimony

    Hill—now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University, as well as a faculty member at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management—spoke out against then federal Circuit Judge Clarence Thomas after former President George Bush had nominated Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Hill said that Thomas had pursued her socially during her two years of employment as his assistant, and after she declined his requests, he used work situations to discuss sexual subjects, including “women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.” Thomas was nonetheless confirmed, and has been an Associate Justice of SCOTUS since October, 1991.

    Via YouTube, we encourage you to watch Hill’s explosive opening statement during the hearing                                                                        (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWD1Cce2AUo ) as well as Blasey Ford’s account of attempted rape by latest SCOTUS nominee Kavanaugh ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJORwf3izUU ).

    Both women have since become important role models for survivors of sexual abuse and other trauma, with many looking to them for strength and guidance.

    Blasey Ford’s Research on Recovery After Trauma

    Members of our team were familiar with Blasey Ford’s work long before she rose to national prominence this year. A professor at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, she is a highly regarded biostatistician who specializes in the design and analysis of clinical trials and other forms of intervention evaluation. Her work speaks to her past, with many projects addressing how to cope after trauma.

    For example, she co-authored a paper in 2005, published in the journal Traumatology, on “posttraumatic growth following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” As for numerous victims of sexual abuse, 9/11 survivors experienced disturbed “psychological equanimity enough to prompt cognitive reorganization, but not enough to undermine or overwhelm the capacities to adapt.” In short, trauma—which she and her colleagues, citing other researchers, call a psychological seismic event—appears to necessitate reorganization of the victim’s thought processes over long periods, and perhaps for the rest of their lives.

    Surprisingly, Blasey Ford and her team report that those who experience greater personal growth after trauma almost always undergo an initial period of denial, including avoidance of thinking at all about the disturbing episode. Perhaps this time allows for the aforementioned mental reorganization to occur. Survivors also work—often with mental health experts, friends and family—to gradually face the reality of what happened and to reframe it in a positive way. Blasey Ford and her colleagues quote another research team: “Cognitive coping strategies, such as focusing on the positive aspects of the situation in order to minimize its psychological significance, may enable some people to emphasize the benefits of life crises.”

    Trauma Coping Strategies

    It is hard to imagine anything positive coming out of a traumatic situation, but Blasey Ford and others indicate that beneficial reframing is possible. As journalist Caitlin Gallagher shared in a report earlier this year about the #MeToo movement, those who have survived, and even thrived, after sexual assault, suggest following these coping strategies:

    1. Advocate for reform.
    2. Reach out to others with love and empathy.
    3. Open up about your experience.
    4. Find the words to tell your story.
    5. Go to counseling.
    6. Pause in peace by reading, doing yoga or engaging in other quiet activities that require mental focus.
    7. Use the arts for expression.
    8. Act “as if.” (A sexual assault victim, Lena, reports: “I learned how to act confidently, speak loudly, and laugh. Those skills helped me build up incredible new connections with people. Those connections, in turn, helped my mind heal. I faked it until I became it, and it worked.”)
    9. For some, prayer and faith help.
    10. Aid others in need.
    11. Speak out.
    12. Find purpose.
    13. Meditate.
    14. Stay active and social, such as by playing sports, taking dance classes or engaging in other favorite and beneficial group pastimes.

    Regarding #9, Blasey Ford and her colleagues wrote that “posttraumatic growth is different from religious practice.” The former “involves an existential domain that is not limited to or coextensive with religion.” It could therefore be that social engagement, positive thinking, meditation and other beneficial aspects of certain religions are responsible for the healing that can occur after trauma.

    Hill discusses many of the coping strategies in her book Speaking Truth to Power (Anchor Books, 1997). Although she agreed to write the book, Hill turned down many lucrative offers following the testimony. These included refusing for years to sell the movie rights to her story and refusing a number of television appearances.

    In the book she writes, “The event known as the Hill-Thomas hearing has been described variously as a watershed in American politics, a turning point in the awareness of sexual harassment, and a wake-up call for women. For me it was a bane which I have worked hard to transform into a blessing for myself and for others. And because it brought to bear for the average public issues of sexual harassment, issues of race, gender, and politics, the hearing and all of the events that surrounded it deserve honest assessment.”

    The book, which actually embodies several of the coping strategies, also includes this statement from Hill: “I write to offer my own perspective. I do this not simply to survive the tragedy but to transcend it.”

    Hill and Blasey Ford Address LGBTQ Concerns

    It will come as no shock to members of the LGBTQ community to learn that Hill was called “a radical feminist, a lesbian, a sexual aggressor, or an incompetent teacher” by her detractors. Hill has never married, but a longtime companion has been businessman Chuck Malone. She remains a strong ally of our community. As she said in a 2014 interview with BET, “Civil rights are not something that you can parse. You can’t say that you have partial civil rights. It has to be an inclusive idea.” (Listen to her full statement about LGBTQ rights here https://www.bet.com/video/celebrity/2014/anita-hill-interview-part-two.html )

    Blasey Ford is also a strong ally of our community. With her colleagues, she has even researched anxiety and related disorders concerning concealment of LGBTQ identity among young adults. The results were published in a 2016 paper in the journal Behavior Therapy.

    She and her co-authors call for an end to discrimination and stigma against LGBTQ people and support “establishing safe and open spaces in educational settings” for such youth. She and her team ask that clinicians consider “the unique contexts of sexual minority clients and consider culturally appropriate treatment approaches” for those suffering from anxiety disorders, depression, posttraumatic stress and more.

    As an example, Blasey Ford and colleagues mention that “worries related to discrimination, such as loss of employment due to sexual orientation, may at first appear to be a cognitive distortion, but in fact it is possible to be legally fired for being gay in most of the 50 states.”

    Note the way in which she and her co-authors phrase the following: “Sexual minorities face greater exposure to discrimination and rejection than heterosexuals. Given these threats, sexual minorities may engage in sexual orientation concealment in order to avoid danger. This social stigma and minority stress place sexual minorities at risk for anxiety and related disorders.”

    Institutionalized Homophobia and Racism

    The identified problem then is not just staying in the proverbial closet, but rather the institutionalized homophobia that members of our community must often still face. Blasey Ford and her team shared at the time: “Only 17 states include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in hate crimes legislation, and just 16 states prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in educational settings.” (Now just 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico, have statutes that protect against both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in employment in the public and private sector.) In many of her talks and interviews, Hill discusses the related problem of endemic racism and how it can amplify challenges faced by LGBTQ people.

    Both Hill and Blasey Ford have gone far beyond the platform of their respective Senate hearings to do what they can to improve “the system” as they exposed those whom they believe are not fit to serve on the bench of our nation’s highest court of law. They appear to be thoughtful individuals who have tremendous empathy for, and understanding of, those who have faced particularly serious challenges in their lives. We were all witness to their dignity, resolute calmness and composure in front of a global audience and while facing unimaginable scrutiny. Whatever happens next on the SCOTUS and political fronts, they provide hope that honesty, fairness and basic human decency will ultimately prevail. As Hill told Newsweek, “I can sleep at night knowing I told the truth … . I’m not broken.”

    The national sexual assault hotline RAINN has experienced an unprecedented number of calls since Blasey Ford’s testimony. For more information about RAINN, visit https://www.rainn.org/