Reporting sex abuse: Damned if you do or don’t.

By: - October 4, 2018 5:49 am

Donald Trump ridiculing his enemies at a Make America Great Again rally in Mississippi. C-SPAN screen-grab

As the director of a progressive non-profit, Annette Magnus makes a living giving a voice to people who don’t have one. Finding her own voice was much harder and took thirteen years.  

“When I talk about my own experience, like right now I’m so nervous. Every time I talk about it I feel sick to my stomach,” says Magnus, who is revealing publicly for the first time her alleged sexual assault at the hands of a Nevada legislator whom she does not want to name. “If I had come forward when I was 19, I don’t know that people would have believed me. I was a legislative intern. The power dynamic was different. It was my entry into politics.”

Among the chief reasons survivors of sexual assault don’t report their assailants is the fear of being doubted about an event that often lacks witnesses.  

On Tuesday, the President of the United States ridiculed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, hailed by many as a hero for having the courage to speak up on national TV about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Trump mocked Ford’s inability to remember some details of the event 36 years ago.

His words have been widely condemned by Democrats as well as by three key Republican senators, Lisa Murkoswki of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who maintained support for Brett Kavanaugh after last week’s Senate Judiciary hearing, has remained silent about Trump’s comments.     

“It was clearly a different tone than his earlier comments,” says UNLV Political Science Associate Professor Rebecca Gill, who directs the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada.  She theorizes that Trump’s definition of “credible” doesn’t conform with standard meaning.

“I think he was probably following advice from his advisors after the hearing, but also thought that (Ford) played well on TV, and that an audience would find Dr. Ford credible. I think his comments Tuesday at the rally are probably closer to what he believes in terms of the veracity of her claims, and I think it’s probably partly because he’s also had to rebut claims of inappropriate sexual behavior, harassment and assault,” says Gill.

Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women.  He denies the allegations.

“Trump may be like many similarly situated men who are reluctant to believe women in certain circumstances, for fear that others may be likely to believe the same accusations about them,” Gill says.

“There was no upside for Dr. Ford and she knew it, which is why she tried to remain anonymous. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, she decided to bite the bullet. That makes her all the more heroic,” says Gill. “This treatment is not a surprise to her.  It’s still shocking.”

“When you see a woman who has to go on display, she does that at risk to her health, mental well-being and safety,” says Magnus, a native Las Vegan. “They don’t want attention.  They don’t want to have to do this. When men who don’t belong in a position of power are put there, coming forward is the only way to address the injustice.”

“I told my therapist it was consensual.  My therapist said ‘Annette, that wasn’t consensual.  That was coercion,” Magnus remembers, identifying a common theme among many victims of sexual assault and harassment — that they were not in a position to say “no.”  

“We treat these cases as insular,” says Professor Gill. “Courts are not good at dealing with these patterns of behavior. Women are taught to feel shame and at least partially culpable and even if they don’t fee culpable, they’ll be held responsible.  So not only don’t they come forward, they don’t talk about it.”

When it comes to reporting sexual assault or harassment, there’s safety in numbers.  

Magnus says other women made accusations about the same lawmaker she says coerced her into sex as a teenager.  But would she have come forward after 13 years if the other women had not?  

“That’s a really complex question for me.  I don’t know that I would,” she admits. “What you’re seeing in all of this is women coming forward because other women are coming forward.  So last year I made that decision because I knew other women were being preyed upon.”

“This phenomenon is not a surprise to people who understand how gender roles are socialized and the way boys and girls learn about their appropriate place in the world,” says Gill.   

Gill knows of what she speaks.  She was once offered a job in academia if she agreed to have an affair.

“I went 15 years without knowing the person who harassed me had done it to others,” she says. 

“In January, I was on a panel and told my story about being harassed in graduate school. He was a famous political scientist.  Once the story started getting big, I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to have any friends, I was going to have to live under a rock.”

Male mentors, she says, lacked the capability to cope or relate with a woman who had been offered a job in exchange for sex.

“We are socialized to keep it to ourselves because we know what the consequences will be. We’ve seen it play out,” she says. We learn this lesson early and it’s reinforced.  There’s just no upside most of the time. You know there are going to be bad consequences and you can be really sure there will be no consequence for the perpetrator, even if everyone believes you.  He’s going to keep his job.”

“We may also be taught that the fact we’ve been victimized in this way means we’ve been judged by men to deserve this treatment. We think ‘If I were the kind of girl he’d take home to his mother, this wouldn’t have happened to me,'” Gill adds.

“I was made to feel like I did something wrong,” Magnus says of being coerced into sex as an intern by a state lawmaker. “I haven’t even told my parents this happened to me.”   

“I went back in the closet,” says Las Vegan Kait Krolik of being assaulted by a friend her senior year in college. “I was coming out as gay and sharing it with a few of my friends. A guy I was in class with knew I was gay and followed me and a girl who was flirting with me to my house. She went upstairs to get away from him.  He was drunk and belligerent and came at me demanding to know what I had that he didn’t and why girls were attracted to me and not him.”

Krolik says the young man grabbed her and attempted to force his hands down her pants but stopped when another person entered the home.

“It happened on Saturday.  I reported it on Monday to my professor and then to a dean,” says Krolik.  But college officials bungled their attempt to punish the offender, who defied the school’s order to stay away from Krolik.  Instead of enforcing the order, school officials amended it, requiring the perpetrator to attend two hours of counseling any time during the semester. The episode sent Krolik back into the closet.

I tried not to be gay. That doesn’t work. I even dated a guy for a little while.  I couldn’t be my truest self,” she says

The Kavanaugh controversy is prompting survivors, women and men, to confide instances of sexual assault and harassment.  It seems almost everyone has a story.

Ford’s testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee prompted a flood of calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which reported the busiest day in its history on Friday, the day after the hearing.  The hotline, which received an average of 950 calls a day in September, received more than 3000 calls on Friday, according to reports from Mashable.  

Call volume at the Rape Crisis Center in Las Vegas has been “higher than is typical of late and over the weekend,” according to executive director Danielle Dreitzer.

“We are seeing many people call in feeling triggered and wanting to share their personal experiences. The environment is difficult when sexual assault as a topic of conversation is everywhere, and survivors cannot find an escape from the coverage, which has been so charged,” Dreitzer says. “The level of rhetoric around victim blaming and excusing abusive behavior has also increased dramatically, and that is making things very difficult for survivors who may already be feeling dismissed and disbelieved.”

Gill says the spoils of this most unusual episode in American history will go to the party that turns out on Election Day. Both are poised to benefit from the Kavanaugh chaos.

“What the president said was disrespectful and appalling, particularly in that it was inaccurate.  Dr. Ford essentially provided expert testimony explaining the few gaps that were in her memory,” Gill says. “But I think we’ve learned accuracy is not something he’s concerned with.  Perhaps he’ll be able to get more people to turn out for the midterms.  I think it was strategic in that way.”  

On the other hand, if anti-Trump voters view casting their ballots as a proxy vote against the president, it could drive turnout among Democrats.   

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who faces a female opponent in U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, is already facing a gender gap.

“Heller is playing the same sort of dangerous game he’s been playing this whole time,” Gill says, referring to Heller’s shift to the right during the primary, followed by an ever-so-slight dance to the middle in the general campaign. “He needs to convince Republicans to come out because if Democrats get out the vote, he’s got a big problem.”

“Heller was able to get Brian Sandoval to endorse him somehow.  Sandoval’s an incredibly popular governor. And then he’s got to get the base which is much farther to the right than Sandoval.” Gill says. “If Clark County comes out I think Heller has a big problem and the Kavanaugh situation doesn’t play well in Clark County.  It has the ability to drive turnout in Las Vegas, particularly since his opponent is a woman. The Republicans are starting to lose some of the loyalty of white, married women.  If it sticks, it could be a problem for Heller, whose support is structurally thin.”

Beyond the election, Gill says the Kavanaugh nomination has “huge consequences as to the legitimacy of the Senate nomination process going forward.”

“If Kavanaugh is confirmed, it’s going to damage the legitimacy of the Supreme Court more than other appointments have,” Gill predicts. “We accept that the Court makes decisions that have political implications and that justices have worldviews.  We accept that and still respect that it’s the proper institution for making the decisions it makes. Kavanaugh’s testimony, particularly the opening statement, was far beyond discussing worldview.”

“He was nakedly partisan,” Gill says of Kavanaugh’s testimony, in which he blamed political conspirators for the allegations against him. “Regardless of the veracity of the allegations against him, his performance in that chamber was disqualifying.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.