Most of the calls come at night.
But this week, as the Senate Judiciary Committee interviewed first Christine Blasey Ford and then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whom she accuses of sexual assault, calls started pouring in to TurnAround. In fact, the Baltimore organization, which helps survivors of sexual violence, received roughly double its usual volume of calls Thursday and a continued spike Friday, according to a spokeswoman for the organization, though she declined to provide an exact figure.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S., reported Friday a 201 percent increase above normal call volume the day prior.
For many victims of sexual assault, experts say, this week’s hearings prompted long-ago memories of trauma to resurface.
“Our 24-hour helpline has been ringing off the hook,” said Samantha Black, community educator with TurnAround. “A lot of people, people who have been assaulted maybe 10, 20, 30 years ago, are being triggered by this testimony.”
TurnAround received similar surges in call volume around the height of the #MeToo movement and as the abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke, Black said.
As these national conversations unfold, it is not uncommon for sexual assault victims to be re-traumatized by the media coverage, said Michele Decker, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health specializing in social epidemiology and gender-based violence.
Symptoms of re-traumatization can be emotional or physical, taking the form of intense flashbacks or nightmares. Victims’ trauma is compound, meaning both the assault and reactions to their assault can have serious impact on mental health, Decker said.
Ford has alleged that Kavanaugh assaulted her during a party in Bethesda when they were teenagers in 1982.
During the hearing, Ford, a psychologist, explained that certain specific details of the alleged encounter had been permanently stored in her brain. “And so, the trauma-related experience, then, is kind of locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”
Since Ford’s claims became public Sept. 16, two other women have come forward with allegations against Kavanaugh. He has vehemently denied any such incidents took place.
Some advocates expressed concern that the treatment Ford has received from lawmakers, journalists and members of the public might inhibit other survivors from speaking publicly. Ford testified that she has been threatened, her email has been hacked and her family has been forced to relocate.
“It’s deeply disturbing how much people don’t understand,” said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director at Hopeworks, a Howard County organization that also provides help to victims of sexual and domestic violence. “It’s not just about the Kavanaugh/Ford case. It is something that is a resounding retraumatization for so many people who have experienced something similar.”
Regardless of whether Kavanaugh actually assaulted Ford, Pollitt Hill said, the public scrutiny of Ford is likely to discourage some survivors from coming forward. “It absolutely reinforces ‘don’t report, don’t come forward, stay silent, don’t tell your story because if you do, you will be raked through the coals.”
Black agreed. “Probably for every person that has called in, there are usually a few who have also been triggered who don’t reach out for services because they see the kind of response that Ms. Ford is getting,” she said.
As a survivor of sexual assault, Ashley Horner could not bring herself to watch Ford’s testimony Thursday. The Baltimore Sun does not typically name victims of sexual assault, but Horner, who speaks publicly about her experiences with her organization Anchored Souls, agreed to share her name.
When Horner overheard her son watching the Senate hearing on his phone Thursday evening, she had to ask him to put in earbuds. Hearing snippets of Ford’s testimony was a “trigger” her, she said Friday — she became upset recalling her own experiences.
“I'm not here to say this person is guilty or not, but I am upset with how these women are victimized again and again,” Horner said. “Nobody will take a stand to say ‘This happened to me,’ because there is such a stigma and you will be questioned and ridiculed.”
Horner said it took years to recall some of the specific memories tied to her assault — a parallel she recognized between her own story and Ford’s.
“I think, quite frankly, our brains do some really funky things when there’s trauma,” she said.
Watching Ford answer questions Thursday, one Baltimore resident, who did not want to be named, thought of the boy who raped her 24 years ago, when she was a teenager, she said. How he’d covered her mouth. How he’d been an athlete, the kind of guy no one would think would do such a thing.
“I really felt like I was in her shoes,” she said of Ford.
Unlike Ford, the woman said, she reported the rape to local police. However, she was discouraged by local detectives, she said. Today, she said, her attacker is a prominent professional, and she sees his face in advertisements.
“That smirk on his face,” she said. “It just constantly reminds me that he is getting away with it.”