On Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, launched an inquisition into Neomi Rao, President Trump’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals. Quoting Rao’s statements, Harris suggested the nominee would blame the victims of sexual assault for their abusers’ crimes.
“You said when having a conversation with Senator Ernst ‘women should take certain steps to avoid becoming a victim.’ What steps do you have in mind that women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?” Harris asked Rao, an Indian-American who serves as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
“Senator, it’s just sort of a commonsense idea about, for instance, excessive drinking. That was advice that was given to me by my mother.”
“So that is one step you believe women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?” Harris asked, as if the idea were utterly alien to her.
“It is just a way to make it less likely. It’s not to blame the victim,” Rao responded. “You know, rape and sexual assault are horrible crimes, but we’re talking about what can you do to keep yourself safe.”
“Are there other steps that you believe women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?” the senator pressed again. She then launched into the “gotcha” portion of the question, “So do you believe if a woman does not take those steps that she is at fault or partially at fault for what happens to her?”
Without hesitation, Rao declared, “No.”
“So what is the significance of taking those steps?” Harris pressed.
“I think it’s just the significance of trying to avoid becoming a victim of any crime, right? We take different steps to try to protect ourselves from horrible crimes such as rape,” Rao explained. “I think what we want is for women to not be victims.”
Citing an article from 1993, the senator asked if Rao considers “no” to mean “no.” The nominee disavowed her earlier statements, saying that in cases of sexual assault, “‘No’ always means ‘No.'”
Harris continued: “You said that a good way for a potential date rape to be avoided is for a woman to stay reasonably sober. You went on to say if a woman ‘drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well getting to that point was part of her choice.’ Do you stand by those comments?”
Rao explained that she would not stand by those comments today, but insisted that she “was only trying to make the commonsense observation about the relationship between drinking and becoming a victim.”
The senator asked about a rule proposed by the Department of Education providing due process protections to people accused of sexual assault on college campuses. Rao responded that she could not comment on the rule.
Harris’s line of questioning aimed to present Rao as an opponent of women’s rights, someone who does not take accusations of sexual assault seriously. The senator attempted to paint Rao’s advice for women on avoiding sexual assault as a defense of men who commit crimes. This is patently absurd, and when Harris asked the nominee about a previous statement that almost suggested something like that, Rao clearly disavowed it.
The responsibility for sexual assault rests entirely on the assaulter. However, that does not mean women — and men — should not take steps to make it less likely for them to become victims. Rao’s “commonsense” advice to women is good — and it does not at all mean she excuses heinous sex crimes. Harris’s assertions otherwise are disgusting.
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