George Will and the “Myth” of Sexual Assault

updated 6/19/2014

Shame on you, George Will, and shame on you, Washington Post. The June 6 article by Will is an embarrassment to your profession. If you want an example of irresponsible writing about sexual violence and crime, look no further than today’s op-ed.

George Will writes that liberals, the Obama administration, and college campuses around the country are now making “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges”. Really? What are these privileges? The privilege of having your body violated by another person? The privilege of being grilled by campus courts that have a vested interest in finding no evidence of crime? The privilege… I can’t even fathom what he means.

Will goes on to describe some events that happened at Swarthmore College, my alma mater. He relates a sexual assault and goes on to trivialize it, assault the character of the woman who reported sexual assault, and imply that she made the whole thing up. He assassinates her character by pointing out that she waited six weeks to file a report. Six weeks! She must be lying!

Will goes on to assail the concept of “trigger warnings”, strongly implying that warning victims of trauma about what they’re going to see is a namby-pamby liberal coddling of people who are too wuss-bag-tastic to handle the rigors of a Real Education. “Otherwise, traumas could be triggered in students whose tender sensibilities would be lacerated by unexpected encounters with racism, sexism, violence (dammit, Hamlet, put down that sword!) or any other facet of reality that might violate a student’s entitlement to serenity.”

Any other facet of reality. Will is laying rhetorical claim to speaking for the real world, the Lorax of Real Life. I hope he’s as strongly opposed to the G/PG/PG13/NC17/R rating system, since that’s really just an age-based trigger warning scheme—but, in any case, that’s kind of secondary. Will is using his older white man speaking-for-reality privilege to deny the lived experience of millions of people, and doing it from the pages of a respected newspaper. That shit has to stop. Who signed off on this?

Others have attacked Will’s piece with, perhaps, more clarity and vigor than I can muster, but I feel like I need to add my voice to the choir in part because talking about sexual violence so often breaks down along gender lines: women are vocally against sexual assault and men are, often, pretty damn silent.

So, here are some points from me, a guy who’s angry about sexual violence.

Sexual violence is hard to figure out, because a lot of it involves relationships and blurred lines, Robin Thicke notwithstanding. There’s a lot of gray involved. I say that as someone who’s worked on a crisis hotline for 19 years, as someone who’s hired and tried to comfort many victims of sexual assault, as… well, as a person. It’s hard. That does not make it okay to treat it with sarcasm, to accuse victims of weakness, to make fun of their attempts to use the judicial system, or to ridicule universities for trying to protect the students living on their campuses. By asserting that efforts to care for victims of violence are somehow “hypersensitive, even delusional”, Will is basically saying that his desire to live in a world where sex isn’t complicated is more important than our desire to take care of people who’ve been hurt. I call bullshit.

For most of my life, I’ve worked and lived with people who’ve been hurt by sexual violence. I’ve been lucky to avoid it, and I use “lucky” because someone planned to sexually abuse me when I was a child—my parents intervened in time, and nothing happened, but I feel really lucky that they learned about it before things got bad, and delay of a few hours would have made a big difference. I work in suicide intervention, so I hear a lot of people’s stories—and I’ve heard about sexual violence as the precursor to depression and thoughts of suicide so. many. times. that George Will’s screed denying this stuff literally made me gag with rage.

Consent is important. On some level it’s hard, I guess? I guess it’s pretty complicated to ask “how are you feeling about this?” when it comes to sex, and to stop doing whatever you’re doing (or even better, not start doing whatever it was) unless the answer is an enthusiastic “this is great!”. I guess if you’re an old angry white dude bitching about progressives and feminists and uppity women and privileged victims, it’d be hard to swallow the idea that you might need to actually ask someone before involving them in your sex life. Wait, no. Consent isn’t actually hard at all. If it’s not enthusiastically present, act as though it’s not there at all, and stop.

But honestly, his piece becomes a lot more tolerable when you view it as George Will blurting out the fact that he’s developmentally stunted when it comes to respecting other humans and acting like a reasonable person. Re-read the article and substitute some other group when you read “sexual assault” and “rape” and “victims”. Try it with people of color, or nurses, or secretaries, or flight attendants, or international students, or whatever.

Try it with veterans who have PTSD: “They are learning that when they say [PTSD] is ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”

He goes on to say “Now the codes are begetting the soft censorship of trigger warnings to swaddle students in a ‘safe,’ ‘supportive,’ ‘unthreatening’ environment, intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant. ”

Notice the three words in quotations, the three words Will uses to stand for all the things he hates about the world that these colleges, these uppity women, and these regulations are trying to create. He hates that they are trying to make college a safe, supportive, unthreatening environment. Which leads to an interesting conclusion about what Will thinks is important:

College should be un-safe, un-supportive, and threatening. It’s better for your education if you feel threatened and unsafe.

Just close your eyes and try to relax, dear. The rape apologists are here, and they’ve got you covered.

updated to add: papers are starting to notice, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has pulled Will’s columns and gotten rid of him on syndication. It’s a start.


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