In 2013 a student at Swarthmore college “was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months… They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes.” She states that “‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped…And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.” Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped.
In his article, Colleges Mad with Political Correctness Over Campus Rapes, George Will, the by now infamous writer for the Washington Post, used this story to ‘prove’ that college-aged people, specifically women, (though 10% of rape survivors are male) claim that they have been sexually assaulted far more often than they actually are. He cites the ‘blurred lines’ that arise when alcohol and hookup culture come together (apparently rape is okay if you weren’t sure it was going to be rape.) Of course, there’s really nothing blurry about the lines in this scene. The woman very clearly said no. Nothing blurry about that. And her ensuing silence when her assaulter tried again? That doesn’t sound like ‘yes’ to me.
Will’s article was inspired, in part, by the recent release of “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” by The White House Council on Women and Girls. According to the study, 1 in every 5 women was raped in college while only 12% of college rapes (regardless of gender) are reported. Will, not noting that men, too, can be raped and are less likely to report the incidence of rape because of cultural stigma, claims that these figures are clearly impossible. I guess they are, for someone who can’t see beyond our society’s most basic gender normative roles. But there are, surprisingly enough, many factors that play into these issues.
Will is buying into the campaign of victim-blaming, claiming that Academia makes “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges,” causing “victims [to] proliferate.” It’s important to recognize the difference between creating a false sense of victimhood and victims taking advantage of the resources available to them to protect themselves, come to terms with their experiences, and move on.
Yes, we now offer certain resources to victims. Does that mean that they’re now going out of their way to get raped? No. It would not be rape if women wanted it to happen. George Will assumes that the increased reporting of assault is indicative of falsehood rather than more women feeling comfortable enough to come forward and report. I consider it a good thing that an increasing number of women have the self-confidence to recognize that they deserve protection and justice. They are not “hypersensitive, [and] even delusional.”
Will brings up the idea of micro-aggressions, the basic assumptions, back-handed comments and slips of the tongue by which we perpetuate patriarchy and systems of oppression. Will claims to be unable to see micro-aggressions and, thus, is sure that they cannot exist. Perhaps if he were part of any oppressed community (hint: he’s an aging white male), he would recognize what we’re talking about. But then, of course, as an entitled upholder of patriarchy he must be right when he tells us that ‘it’s all in our heads.’
Again and again, Will reinforces the idea of sexual assault as a delusion. His insistence on putting the phrase sexual assault in quotes every time he uses it is characteristic of the disbelieving, heavily sarcastic, and condescending approach that feminists (i.e. those who believe that women are EQUAL to men), have come to associate with patriarchal oppression of women. Is Will implying that a woman doesn’t have the authority or intellectual capacity to decide whether she’s been raped? Because that’s what it sounds like to me.
Will also critiques the “capacious definitions of sexual assault that can include not only forcible sexual penetration but also nonconsensual touching.” I’m not sure what the basis for his critique is here. Rape is not the only form of sexual aggression. Although a survivor may not have suffered “sexual penetration,” he/she/ze is still subject to the emotional and physical pain of assault.
Will also has a problem with the fact that a person’s judgment might be impaired by alcohol/drugs and, thus, that consent given while intoxicated might not be considered consent. Think of it this way: would you let your friend or partner go out and buy an expensive car while intoxicated? Nope. You’d tell them to put it off until they can make a sober decision. Of course, you can’t really compare buying a car to having sex, but the point is that alcohol impairs judgment. Just because an assaulter wants to have sex/assert dominance, doesn’t mean he/she is entitled to do just that at any time. Wait until the next evening to have consensual sex.
Will also critiques the recent movement to make colleges’ rates of sexual assault available to prospective students. As a woman who is attending college at the moment, I consider the likelihood of my being raped at a school to be very important. I want to be going to school somewhere that I will feel safe. I want to know that my school is taking effective steps to protect my well-being.
But protection is, apparently, not a big issue for Will. His final stand in the article is against trigger warnings, which he seems to think are all about creating a bubble of (unrealistic) serenity to protect the entitled minds of modern college students (how do you feel, fellow college students? Are you just cocooned in a pristine world of political correctness?).
“This entitlement has already bred campus speech codes that punish unpopular speech. 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.” Will asserts that trigger warnings are a limitation to free speech. That’s obviously not true: you wouldn’t need to give a trigger warning if the potentially triggering content were censored. By being forced to include trigger warnings (such a sacrifice, no?), he claims that the speakers of America are being oppressed in some way by the “negative speech codes that punish unpopular speech.” Yet unpopular speech isn’t being oppressed any more than usual. After all, there’s a reason it’s called unpopular speech: it doesn’t have the support of the general public. Trigger warnings don’t prevent the inclusion of any statements or information, they just make viewers/listeners aware that it is coming. If a professor, for example, includes a trigger warning on the syllabus of his/her course, students worried about having a difficult experience triggered can work with the professor to cultivate a sympathetic environment in which they can come to understand and address the issues that are affecting them. The point of trigger warnings isn’t to eliminate content (again, we wouldn’t give warnings if the content were not there). It is to create an environment in which students can address and engage with these triggering issues.
Will’s long and fundamentally flawed article has inspired quite a reaction from media groups across the country. Petitions are springing up to have him fired from the Washington Post, and the internet is overrun with articles decrying his rape-excusive attitude. Nobody needs another aging white guy telling them what to do with their body.
Images courtesy of truthdig.org, change.org, changemacazine.org, sundial.csun.edu, thinkprogress.org, bwss.org, and dailymail.co.uk.