Responses to sexual assault allegations rarely about the facts

As Christine Blasey Ford discovered, even despite compelling testimony of abuse, sexual assault or harassment seems to matter less than it should to many people and institutions. Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw asks why that is.

Brett Kavanaugh will be the next supreme court judge in the US. The vote was close - 48 to 50 for him.  

A volatile Kavanaugh blustered, lied, and cried through questions put to him by Senators about the assault of Christine Blasey Ford as a teenager, and more generally questions about his drinking and character. Professor Ford also appeared and anxiously, calmly, politely, recalled, within the limits her memory, the circumstances in which she was assaulted by Kavanaugh. She was 100 percent positive it was him.

For a woman to risk so much personally and professionally, to say she was 100 percent sure who attacked her, and to not be believed by over half of those who voted in the Senate is a crushing blow. Not just to Ford but to the many people who experience assault and speak up or may be considering the value of doing so.

But did those 50 senators who voted for Kavanaugh do so because they thought Ford was at best mistaken or at worst lying? Or were the facts of her assault simply a small, and not particularly relevant, aspect of what constitutes what people see as true when it comes to sexual assault and harassment?

What I mean by this is: do groups of people just choose not to see or deal with the facts of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination because it does not fit with their existing ideas and beliefs about what matters most in our institutions and society more generally?

With today's revelations around Jami-Lee Ross, this year's Russell McVeagh revelations, and the building of the #metoo movement in New Zealand, and as more people, often but not always women, make public their experiences of being sexual assaulted and harassed at work and in social settings, what response will New Zealanders, and our institutions, have?

Already there has been minimising, obfuscation, outright denial, alongside obvious attempts to polarise the issue of sexual assault and harassment. There have been references to “witch hunts” and the encouragement of unfounded fears that men will never be able to approach a woman again, that somehow consent is a difficult and confusing concept.

Consent is easy to understand when you care about getting it.

The issue is why does the reality of sexual assault or harassment seem to matter less than it should in so many cases?

At the heart of the Kavanaugh episode, the #metoo movement, workplace harassment, is a struggle over what and who is most important in our society. Specifically, whether it actually matters if men sexually assault and harass women. And more generally how much does it matter we have structures that mean those in positions of authority or power can assault, harass, discriminate against members of groups who have less with impunity?

Facts are not as important in determining our beliefs and actions as values

Social scientific research shows that values (ideas such as equality, creativity, success, maintaining tradition) are at the heart of our motivations. They determine what we feel, believe and how we choose to act in the face of information. Values are like a camera lens, they put a frame around the information, telling us what is relevant and what is not, what to feel and how to respond.

The evidence suggests that in New Zealand we place more importance on traditional gender roles and ideas of family.

Those women who come forward are telling us that the sexual assault and harassment, often by those in positions of authority or power, at work, in schools, at parties, is not okay and never has been. It is of paramount importance that people don't get to touch others without very explicit and enthusiastic consent, regardless of the circumstances, simply because of membership of a particular group (in this case being a woman). It is fundamentally about valuing the equal and respectful treatment of all genders.

However, there are many people who don't think gender equality is really that important. They value something else more. The evidence suggests that in New Zealand we place more importance on traditional gender roles and ideas of family.

Valuing traditional gender roles and ideas of family means people tend to think only in terms of two genders. There are men and women, each who have different and often biologically determined roles to play in society, and specifically in families. These values are supported by cultural stories, or powerful narratives in our society. Most of the time we are barely aware of such narratives. But when researchers scratch the surface they find these narratives about gender norms are ever present.

In such narratives men are said to have greater sexual desire than women, and are unable to control it, especially after drinking.

When people don't let little boys play with dolls this is a fairly commonplace example of stories that show how we value traditional gender roles. A more extreme version (but by no means uncommon) is the shared idea that attacks  on or harassment of women are primarily an interpersonal issue such as the character, morals or discipline of either women or the people who attack them.

These beliefs can be heard in expressions such as “she should not have walked alone”, “she lead him on”, “boys will be boys” or “men cannot help themselves” explanations. In such narratives men are said to have greater sexual desire than women, and are unable to control it, especially after drinking.

Another example of the narratives that support traditional gender values is the idea that women who work in male dominated workplaces, or even where men have traditionally held authority, need to put up with the distinct and different nature of men and the “behaviours” that come with that. In such narratives women’s natural abilities lie elsewhere. This exact narrative was utilised by a physicist at CERN last week.

The minimisation of sexual assault and harassment (and discrimination against women) result in part from people placing a high value in society on traditional gender roles. These are not values and beliefs that are limited to men.

This is a struggle for valuing equality in society

The Kavanaugh nomination in the US, the world of politics and law here, #metoo, all are a push against those values. People, mostly women and transgender people, but also groups of men, are insisting that it is unacceptable that social and institutional processes and structures to be driven by such values. Gender equality, and all the awkward and uncomfortable changes to common place behaviours that need to go with that, needs to matter more.

It can be difficult to see the advantages a system offers a group if you are a member of that group, especially if you as an individual don't feel a personal benefit.  How does the story go? One fish swam up to another fish and asked “how's the water?” The other fish said “what's water?” And gender inequality is the water we swim in.

In our society (and I can only talk about societies dominated by western cultural norms) it is not that achieving gender equality has not mattered. It is what matters more is maintaining the social relations, processes, and structures that privilege a particular group’s actions and interests, while constraining others.  Researchers and philosophers, for example Iris Marion Young, call this structural inequality. The people living it every day just call it injustice.

John Key sought out a young woman in her workplace on a number of occasions in order to touch her hair, despite her asking him not to.

In practice what it means in terms of sexual assault and harassment, is that many institutions including families, schools, police, workplaces, the justice system, the media, give less priority to women's stories and experiences of sexual assault and harassment. They give greater priority to maintaining traditional notions of gender, the behaviours that align with those values  and the obvious and subtle narratives that uphold those values.

John Key sought out a young woman in her workplace on a number of occasions in order to touch her hair, despite her asking him not to. When he then dismissed that behaviour as "a bit of banter", and when the public responded with cries of “PC gone mad”, it was an example of a social process that maintains that the behaviours of powerful men are more important than the right of women to go about their work without harassment.

But times and cultural norms are changing. There is a struggle to shift to prioritising gender equality. And it does not divide simply on political and gender lines. It is more generational. In New Zealand slow progress is being made. Some institutions are learning what to value most, some are still grappling in the “learning pit” as teachers would say.

However, this is not simply about gender

The inequalities that our systems and structures maintains between genders is just one type of persisting injustice. There are pervading inequalities in New Zealand based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, impairment and disability, wealth, age and more.

Tax policy upholds housing and wealth inequalities between generations. Upholding the interest one group has in making untaxed profit from housing, while constraining other groups’ opportunity to access affordable housing. In our welfare system we offer unconditional income support to people over 65 but not to children, and accept the huge inequality in wellbeing that results from that. In our health and education systems there are huge advantages for non-Māori over Māori but people in policy continue to develop health programmes in ways that benefit non-Māori more than Māori. And we need to do something about these inequalities in order to improve collective wellbeing.

Inequality across economies and societies may advantage a few, but what we see is that as a whole it drags us down. Effective government is about supporting the interests of the collective not the few. Max Rashbrooke makes this point in his new book Government for the Public Good. People in government have not in fact reduced the level of government services and support over the last 30 years. Rather they have simply concentrated it on a few groups in society. Though I am not sure Max explored gender equity specifically, certainly there has been a loss of capacity in policy-making with regards to gender analysis. The latest tax working group report for instance made only a token and surface effort to consider tax policy through a gender lens.

There is a message here about inequality in New Zealand and it is not about whether it exists.

Ultimately conversations about the behaviour of judges nominated to the Supreme Court in the US, partners at law firms, young men at parties, and what policies are needed to improve the situation in workplaces and across society need to be about what we value. Facts are part of that conversation but they are not enough. Likewise when we talk about income equality, the pay penalties Māori and Pacific women experience, the treatment of income from housing investments, we need to make what we value a more transparent part of the conversation.

Because if New Zealanders do really think giving people a fair go matters most (and both public conversation and research suggest we do) then we can make fairness happen. With all the difficult, awkward and ultimately positive growth for our collective selves that comes with that.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is Co-Director of The Workshop and a research associate at the Public Policy Institute at University of Auckland.

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