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  • Writer's pictureHeather D. Flowe, PhD

US Election 2020: A troubling standoff on sexual violence

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

It is only a matter of days before the US Presidential Election.

For many reasons it has been a campaign like no other. Even by our heavily bipartisan standards, it has been notably full of personal barbs between candidates. The gloves, and indeed the masks, are off.

And yet despite the desire to score political points on their rival, campaigners have shied away from discussing the accusations of sexual assault levied at both candidates.

Sexual violence, a persistent problem in the US, has also been absent from the presidential and vice-presidential debates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that one in three women has experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. It is something that needs discussing at the most high-profile level.

Of course, it is absent because both sides are grappling with the risk of self-inflicted harm.

Biden, the presumed favourite, stands to benefit little from listing Trump’s accusers (at least 19, most recently Amy Dorris in September of this year) knowing it would likely bring allegations made by Tara Reade, about Biden, to the fore.

And the loose-lipped Trump has been uncharacteristically schtum – so far – on Biden.

An uncomfortable standoff has been reached.

The lack of attention on these accusations is deeply problematic but we should not be that surprised.

We are only three years removed from the #MeToo movement that took flight in 2017, and the high-profile case of Harvey Weinstein and others that followed.

We have seen evidence of positive cultural change post-#MeToo, and there are incremental changes being made to the legal structure that will help some survivors.

But this is still the nation where between 1-2% of reported rapes lead to prosecutions.

This is still the nation that watched a Supreme Court candidate face historical rape accusations in a televised hearing – and saw the accuser, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, undergo a brutal trial of her own with many casting doubt on her testimony. Trump, the President, told reporters that he was ‘100 percent’ certain that Kavanaugh did not rape Ford.

This speaks to how far we have to go.

Imagine, if you would, a candidate who would make justice for sexual assault survivors a prominent campaign issue.

They could use this election as a launching point for cultural and legislative rethink on sexual violence. It would be an opportunity to press for meaningful change to a justice system that continues to undermine witnesses. Even though legislative progress may be bogged down by bipartisan point-scoring, they would still have the Presidential platform from which to apply pressure.

They could encourage evidence-based practice that better understands how to support victims and prosecute assailants.

We know, for example, that memory testimony is terribly understood by many in the legal system.

We continue to see memory experts deployed by defendants to cast doubt on the testimony of victims, even when there is corroborating evidence.

There is an expectation for victims to recall events in a particular way – with incredible attention to detail that supersedes what most could feasibly recall about an event (and indeed, one ‘I don’t know’ is often used to undermine the whole testimony).

And there continues to be a deep misunderstanding of how memory is impacted by alcohol and by trauma.

Scientific work has shown that our knowledge of alcohol’s effects on us impacts how we report our memories about events experienced while alcohol intoxicated. Alcohol is not a hallucinogenic. It doesn’t make us more likely to see things that aren’t there or remember things that didn’t happen.

Instead, alcohol is a depressant. It dulls our senses and reduces the amount of information that we can take in about events.

To compensate, people reduce the amount of information they report about crimes they have experienced or witnessed. When people recall events like these, they are more likely to recall information about which they are highly confident, and this information is usually highly accurate.

Compare this evidence of how alcohol actually effects memory with how Dr Ford was challenged during her testimony.

It tells us that, even with some recent progress, the chasm between what science tells us about memory and how our justice system works in cases of sexual assault is still vast.

The evidence is there to support meaningful change, but that would require strong leaders pushing for reform.

Sadly, the loudest voices in the US in 2020 are staying quiet because of their own history. Their silence speaks volumes.


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