The controversy surrounding Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s ’87 LAW ’90 nomination to the Supreme Court prompted me to dig through a long-neglected box of papers from my time at Yale in the mid-1980s. In January 1985, I arrived on campus as a transfer student and soon became involved with the Yale Women’s Center, during a time when sexual assault was pervasive. My foray through “the archives” took me right back to a swirl of events that reminded me of how Yale, and the world outside Yale’s gates, was very much a man’s world — of power, privilege and impunity. In light of the events currently unfolding in Washington, I wonder how much has changed.
During the mid-1980s, silence and impunity around the issue of sexual assault continued to deprive survivors not only of justice, but also of services necessary for healing. One clipping in my box was from the front page of the Yale Daily News on April 22, 1985. It shows two articles side by side; the first story was titled “Six-man jury acquits man of sexual assault of Yale student,” this, despite the victim’s spot-on identification of the defendant, numerous razor cuts on her body and the removal of razor blade pieces from her vagina by a doctor during a post-assault exam. The other story reported on “Take Back the Night” events, including a 400 women–strong march through the streets of New Haven.
There was little support for victims of sexual assault at Yale. Prior to transferring to Yale, I had spent part of my year off as a volunteer counselor at the Rape Crisis Center in Washington D.C. In the fall of 1985, a friend and I decided to start a student-to-student sexual assault counseling service. In a presentation I gave at the First National Conference on Campus Violence in January of 1987, I spoke about our collaboration with New Haven Rape Crisis Services to provide this much needed service on campus and said that “it seemed as if almost every woman I talked with either had been a victim [of sexual assault ] herself or knew someone who was.” I also spoke about the Yale administration — about how it remained silent and encouraged women who had been assaulted to do the same.
During the launch of our initial project, the Sexual Assault Survivors Support System, the News ran a front-page story on us, echoing our concern that Yale’s support services for students revealed serious weaknesses around issues of sexual assault.
There were no counselors at Yale Mental Health Services trained in rape crisis intervention. Statistics about date rape were not published. The administration discouraged women from pressing charges or filing complaints against other Yale students. Women were urged to consider their assailants’ futures and were told that the “hearings and procedures [were] ‘emotionally draining’ and would probably do the rape victim more harm than good.” In fact, one woman told me that her dean had pressured her into not reporting by saying things such as, “He’s a leader of the student community and so smart — do you want to ruin his future? Are you sure you didn’t do something to provoke it? How could such a guy, a freshman counselor, etc., do what you say he did?’”
As I write this from Washington D.C., the echoes from over 30 years ago are deeply disturbing. Women’s voices and stories are silenced, trivialized or gaslighted in a process aimed at protecting male power and privilege and obscuring inconvenient truths. The questions asked now are the same as those that were asked by a Yale dean decades ago: How could someone so smart and accomplished, who’s such a good guy, possibly do what you say he did? What did you do to get yourself into such a situation in the first place? What about his future? Do you want to ruin his life?
Pulling me back from the brink of despair, however, are the words and actions of the courageous Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez ’87, who wanted no part of this drama but insisted, for the good of our country, that their stories be heard, as well as two other Yale alums — U.S. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse ’78 and Amy Klobuchar ’82.
There is still hope yet.