criminal justice system

3 Women on What It Was Like to Testify at Their Sexual-Assault Hearings

Microphone in courtroom.
Microphone in courtroom. Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images/Hero Images

Prosecutors assured Jenny she’d be able to win her rape case — and then her attacker was acquitted after a year and two humiliating trials. Maya was raped by an acquaintance, who rallied his frat brothers against her after she tried to report him. Britta is an incest survivor who came forward years later to set an example for her children.

Ahead of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, three sexual-assault survivors shared their stories of coming forward and testifying in front of their alleged perpetrator — cases that they said tested their faith in the criminal-justice system. On Thursday, Ford will go through this experience herself, but in her case, she will not only testify in front of her accuser — in this public hearing, she will do so in front of the world.

Since Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her at a high-school party in the 1980s, her bravery has in part inspired nationwide acts of solidarity, such as a walkout in support of sexual-violence survivors; simultaneously, she has been subjected to everything from Republicans’ personal attacks to death threats so serious that she and her family moved out of their home.

Though one-third of American women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, few survivors press charges against an alleged perpetrator — according to the Department of Justice’s 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, as survivors fear retaliation, consider the matter to be personal, or worry that police will not do anything to help them. When a sexual-assault survivor’s case does go to trial in criminal court, though, they’re frequently asked to testify. For some, the process can be cathartic and empowering, but for many others, it can be overwhelming, intimidating, and as traumatizing as the alleged abuse itself.

“I think I’m actually less safe than I was before I stood up for myself.”

Jenny, 29

I was 20 when I was raped, just a bit older than Ford. I was staying at a friend’s house with about ten other people who I’d gone out with. After we got back from the bars, I brushed my teeth, changed into pajamas, and made a bed on the couch, just opposite the front door. Around 3 a.m., hours after we’d fallen asleep, a man I’d never met entered the house. He climbed on top of me and I woke to the pain of him already inside of me.

I was warned by the prosecutor that sexual-assault cases are nearly impossible to win, but was assured that my case was a slam dunk. Within days of my assault, the police found the man who raped me and convinced him to go to the police station to talk on tape. After initially denying he’d even entered the house, he eventually arrived at the story he would stick with in court: He entered the house, but the act was consensual and I had seduced him.

I remember that I wore a cardigan set every day of the trial so the jury would know I wasn’t a slut, and had my roommate curl and tie up my hair so I wouldn’t play with it. When I entered the courtroom for the first time, I felt confident, powerful, and a bit sorry for the asshole who raped me.

My friends testified first. As they recalled their own version of the night’s events, I found myself hating them. From the courtroom bench, they looked stupid; it was clear they hadn’t rehearsed like I had. One explained that the man who raped me was a friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s drug dealer. And that she gave him the address of the house where we were staying at. I screamed in my head.

While I was on the stand, they played my 911 call. Hearing my whimpering voice beg for help, I was reminded of how small I was and wept all over again. During my cross-examination, I had been prepared for a barrage of Facebook photos of me drinking or drunk, wearing tight clothes or showing bare skin. I knew this particular brand of party-girl character assassination was part of the deal when I agreed to testify, but I still hated myself during it.

Because he couldn’t speak English, the judge allowed the man who raped me to reenact his version of events for the courtroom with a blow-up doll. The blow-up doll was a male with its dick taped between its legs. The rationale: The female blow-up doll was too chesty and would be insensitive. The doll straddled and kissed my attacker while I looked on and the jury laughed.

My first trial ended in a hung jury. A year later, after another week-long trial, a judge acquitted him of all sexual-assault charges. He was given time-served for deviant sexual conduct, and then released. The humiliation has worn off. The anger hasn’t. The thing is: the jury believed me. They said as much to my prosecutor after the first trial. They just didn’t want to ruin his life and thought he wouldn’t do it again. If I’m assaulted a second time, I don’t think I’ll be believed. That’s what I get hung up on. I think I’m actually less safe than I was before I stood up for myself. And less confident in the power of my voice. If a friend were raped and asked me whether she should testify, I’d tell her: don’t do it.

“I’ve never felt so drained in my life.”

Maya, 24

When I was a freshman at George Washington University, during my first semester, I was raped by another student who was an acquaintance of mine. I had been at a party for the athletic team I was on at the time, which was the weekend of Hurricane Sandy and Halloween. I was texting this person because we were friendly, and I stopped at his fraternity house because it was raining and I was far from home. I was very intoxicated and he was completely sober, and when we went up to his room, I started blacking out. The next thing I remembered, he was on top of me and raping me. I was sure that I hadn’t consented. The next morning I cried in the shower and tried to process what happened. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I started talking to a friend about how I thought I had been taken advantage of, and when I described what happened to a friend, my friend looked at me and said, “He raped you.” I think I had to hear it from someone else to being the process of accepting it.

After feeling really unsafe on campus, having symptoms of PTSD, and being harassed by the perpetrator for six months, I filed a complaint with the university to get a no-contact order against him. To do that, they had to log the assault in the crime log, but because of that, the school paper saw it and did a write-up on the order with basically no information. Then the fraternity members started sending emails asking what happened, and the perpetrator sent an email out to his fraternity listserv, saying, “Oh it’s Maya, she’s crazy, she’s making up all this stuff about me, I hope you bros have my back,” and he outlined a made-up consensual event. A lot of people who I’d never met replied back, “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back, we never liked her anyway,” and stuff like that. Then I was shoved down the street by members of the fraternity after that, and I felt even more unsafe than before I filed because now, 85 men hated me. So a little later on, I decided that the best thing for me to heal and to achieve justice was to file a more formal Title IX complaint with the university, which led to an investigation.

I gave my statement and felt pretty confident in it, but it was really hard hearing his voice. It shook me, and when I listened to his statement, and it was maddening. When the questions started, a lot that were asked to me felt really irrelevant. There was no “what were you wearing,” but they did ask why I removed my rainboots when I walked into a house. After five or six hours, I was feeling drained and scared and alone.

For the hearing, I was permitted to have one person in the room, so I had a law student help me out. The perpetrator, however was not required to be in attendance in person — they let him call in. I wasn’t even allowed to have my best friend in the room, because I had to choose between my friend and a law student. Meanwhile, he could’ve been in a room surrounded by lawyers, drinking a beer in his boxers. They also allowed him to submit witness statements in the middle of the hearing that I hadn’t been prepared for. There were so many opportunities to be blindsided. It didn’t feel as relieving as I thought it would. I’ve never felt so drained in my life.

I had hope at the end of it. I thought that I had made my case, and I was sure that he had violated the school’s sexual-violence policy — the school had charged him with sexual misconduct and sexual violence. However, he was only given a violation of sexual misconduct because the email he sent to his fraternity constituted sexual misconduct. As to why he didn’t violate the sexual-violence policy, the school’s reasoning was that though I did establish that I couldn’t consent, he couldn’t have known that. I feel like they felt that was a good middle ground to appease us.

I’m glad I went through the hearing, and know I did everything I was supposed to do. The way that the school ultimately handled it, though, I thought was ridiculous.

“I wish I had done it earlier but I also know that I wasn’t ready — the time was ripe when I did it, 20-plus years later.”

Britta, 43

I am an incest survivor — my father sexually regularly abused and raped me from ages five to 15. Before I had children, I had seen two therapists and thought I really had my past under control. But then I had children, which tested my patience and power far beyond my limits. When you become a mother, your body and time is not your own most of the time. I lost ground.

I realized that I needed to report when I acknowledged that my daughters would ask me about my dad one day, and I knew I would want to tell them the truth. The natural question I imagined they would ask me was, “But mommy, why didn’t you do something about it?” It hit me like a ton of bricks. So I filed a police report. Because of the statute of limitations, though, only one account was charged.

I was numb and very very scared the days leading up to the trial. Outside the courtroom, I remember staring out the floor-to-ceiling window of the room I was in and realizing that window didn’t open. There was a tree outside and I wanted to smell the leaves of the tree. I became obsessed. I think my mind was trying any coping mechanism possible. Most of all, I felt terribly alone. It’s funny, I remember every detail of the courtroom and seating arrangement — the faces and expressions of the lawyers and judge. I could see my father not even looking at me but staring at the floor, but every now and then looking at me with his “poor me” eyes. It was the first time I had given an account of everything that he had done to me in front of a bunch of strangers. I was strangely composed and it all just gushed out to me. Only after, I realized that I had sweated so much that I was soaking wet under my cardigan.

I felt utter relief afterward. I had the fortune to be surrounded by amazing people that believed me from day one, and supported me throughout. The judge and lawyers were respectful and knowing, and the fact that the secret was finally out was both mentally exhausting and immensely freeing.

He got two-and-a-half years in prison for screwing up my childhood and most of my adult life, so I am not happy about that. I wish I had done it earlier, but I also know that I wasn’t ready — the time was ripe when I did it, 20-plus years later. In the end, I took back control and got my power back, and that’s what this process was about for me. I can tell my daughters one day that I did something about it.

Interviews have been condensed and edited.

3 Women on Testifying at Their Sexual-Assault Hearings