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The women of America who believe and support sexual assault survivors want a break. They want a reprieve from the attacks on Christine Blasey Ford, who was forced to recall excruciating memories of a high school sexual assault before the Senate Judiciary Committee — and the entire nation — on Thursday. They see themselves, or their mothers, sisters, daughters, and best friends, in Ford’s trauma and her tearful resolve. 

They’re exhausted by the prospect that despite Ford’s credible testimony, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is still likely to be confirmed by Republicans to a lifelong appointment — the same Republicans who required Ford to answer questions from a career prosecutor. At one point, Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, reassured Ford by saying, “You are not on trial.” Nevertheless, it still felt that’s exactly what was happening to Ford.

Frankly, many women are wondering how they’ll endure what comes next: Friends expressing skepticism of survivors, commentators picking apart Ford’s testimony, Republicans choosing to instead believe Kavanaugh’s denial.  

Meanwhile, Ford’s accusation has unleashed a third recent national reckoning over the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our culture and politics. And yet, since the revelation of President Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in 2016 and the emergence of the #MeToo movement last fall, there’s still no rulebook on how to cope when the nation confronts the sexual violence that it often pretends simply doesn’t exist. 

Jackie White, an emerita professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has long studied sexual assault, says she’s been appalled at how people have revived classic defenses of sexual assault in response to Ford’s allegations, including the notion that “boys will be boys” and that alcohol is the culprit.  

“We’ve tried multiple ways through our research and advocacy to dispel these myths, and what we’re finding is that they’re all being turned up again.”

“There’s this sense of incredible despair that we’ve done all this work, we’ve tried multiple ways through our research and advocacy to dispel these myths, and what we’re finding is that they’re all being turned up again,” says White. “What just happened to the last four decades of work?” 

White says that no matter what your life experiences — whether you’re a victim of assault, an advocate, or just a friend to a survivor — what’s happening now is bound to affect you. Part of surviving this intense moment, and the emotions and memories it may trigger, is regaining some sense of control and empowerment. 

For survivors, White says it’s critical they know that there are people who will believe them. She urges survivors to seek support. That can mean calling a rape crisis hotline, finding a therapist who specializes in trauma, or telling a friend who they trust. For those who want to report an assault but are afraid of how the police might handle the claim, White suggests researching whether the local police department has a sex crimes unit where investigators have been trained in how to interview trauma victims. 

Activism “can be very therapeutic and affirming” for both survivors and people who’ve never been assaulted but want to make a difference, says White. Getting involved in the #MeToo or the Time’s Up movements, for example, could help alleviate a sense of dread and helplessness brought on by the Kavanaugh hearings. You could stand in solidarity with Ford and other victims on social media, join efforts to change local or state laws related to sexual assault, or volunteer at a rape crisis center or hotline. You can also learn how to best support a victim, something White says is a skill more people need to learn.  

Sometimes, though, self-preservation means tuning out, avoiding the news and social media until you have the mental and emotional stamina to bear seeing the latest updates as well as the inevitable hot takes. 

“We all need to take a break, even those of us who are deeply involved in this work need to take a break,” says White. “You have to rejuvenate yourself. If you’re not healthy physically, it’s very difficult to cope.” 

If you have experienced sexual assault, you can call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access 24-7 help online by visiting hotline.rainn.org.

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