When Christine Blasey Ford appears at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, she will be asked why she waited more than 35 years to accuse the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school in the early 1980s. President Donald Trump has asked similar questions, and implied that the delay cast doubt on her credibility. Last week, he tweeted:
“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed.”
He doubled down on Tuesday, telling reporters at the United Nations that another woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, Deborah Ramirez, was unreliable because she had been “totally inebriated and messed up” at the time of the incident that she said occurred in a freshman dorm at Yale.
“Thirty-six years ago? Nobody ever knew about it? Nobody ever heard about it? And now a new charge comes up,” Trump said. “I can tell you that false accusation and false accusations of all types are made against a lot of people.”
Such comments have prompted a tweet storm under the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport about the many reasons why victims don’t report sexual abuse. But Trump’s tweet and remarks also highlight a critical reason why the alleged victims in the Kavanaugh incident reported the incidents only now: The behavior of the president himself.
Change in America happens slowly. The political scientist John Kingdon argued that activists must spend years “softening” people to get them to think differently. So the #MeToo movement, which paved the way for #WhyIDidntReport, has its roots in generations of feminist activists who slowly changed perceptions and policies to help prevent violence against women.
But, usually, something else also needs to happen for Americans to change. Kingdon says that an idea’s time has to have come. Take the Egyptian revolution, for instance. Clearly the triggering event was the revolution in Tunisia, as Egyptians watched the people of another Arab state topple a dictator.
To find the triggering event for the #MeToo movement, you need look no further than Trump.
In an “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced one month before the 2016 presidential election, Trump can be heard bragging that when he found women attractive, he would “grab them by the p—y” - and get away with it. “When you’re a star they let you do it,” the then-reality television star said in the 2005 recording. “You can do anything.”While he largely brushed off the “Access Hollywood” incident and went on to win the White House, Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women. In addition, he has repeatedly demeaned women - including France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron - by commenting on their bodies. In September 2017, just before #MeToo took off, Trump retweeted a video that was edited to make it look like he was swinging a golf club and knocking Hillary Clinton down. At the time, I argued that the president’s post had made the world a little less safe for women, as studies show that exposure to violence in the media makes people more likely to commit acts of violence.
Women showed they were fed up with these raw eruptions of misogyny. In October 2017, they started reporting incidents of sexual abuse en masse. This #MeToo movement was likely due in significant part to a desire to resist the very culture of sexism and sexual abuse that Trump was promoting. The first women to accuse the producer Harvey Weinstein were entertainment industry stars such as Ashley Judd and Asia Argento. They started to break down the stigma associated with reporting sexual abuse and demonstrate for other women that even the most powerful men can be held accountable. Also, their celebrity status likely lent them credibility in their claims and made it likely that they’d be emulated by other women. Soon, women in many other industries were coming forward with their own stories of sexual abuse - including President Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis.
The #WhyIDidntReport is an outgrowth of #MeToo, a response to the criticism of Ford for waiting so long to come forward with her accusations against Kavanaugh. Of course, as users of the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag make clear, many women, not just Ford, decide not to talk about an incident at the time it happened. Ford was young and scared. There would likely be social repercussions to accusing someone in her social circle. She didn’t have proof. Perhaps she feared being blamed for instigating the event herself, which remains a common occurrence for victims. But the main reason she waited is that, until now, Kavanaugh wasn’t in the running for one of the most powerful decision-making posts in the nation. His nomination can only have led her to believe she had a responsibility to share information that, if true, would have a direct bearing on the judge’s character.
But there’s another critical factor. The #MeToo movement has shown Women that they can hold powerful men to account. As Victor Hugo wrote, “greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.