George Will’s Latest Column Is Part of the Sexual Assault Problem, Not the Solution

I don’t usually pay much attention to George Will, the Washington Post columnist. According to his bio, he writes a twice-weekly column about politics and domestic and foreign affairs; unlike some op ed columnists coming from vastly different standpoints than my own, however, I don’t often find his pieces to shed new light on issues or to inspire alternative ways of thinking. His latest column, however, I can’t just ignore. It’s about sexual assault

— Wait, no. That’s inaccurate. It’s not about sexual assault. It’s about how Will is convinced that sexual assault in college isn’t nearly as much of a problem as all those bleeding heart liberals are making it out to be. It’s about how being a sexual assault victim has been “[made]… a coveted status that confers privileges.” And it is so rage-inducing that I stared at it for a good half hour after reading it, trying to figure out exactly what to do with it. What I wanted to do was to print it out, set fire to it, and then let every dog in my neighborhood pee on its flaming remains; however, no tree deserves to meet its ends at the hands of such awful, willfully ignorant words, so I decided to write about it instead.

Will argues that all those stories in the news lately about sexual assaults taking place on college campuses — what he calls “the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault’” — are really blowing the whole thing out of proportion. He refers to sexual assault in quotation marks throughout the article — “sexual assault” — as if whatever is going on, it isn’t really sexual assault, so let’s try and make it seem as though everyone who calls it that is just overreacting. He argues that the strides the government is taking to solve the problem are taking away academia’s power and prestige. And I am not alone in being absolutely mind-blown that something like this reached publication.

Katie McDonagh at Salon hit the proverbial nail on the head when she wrote the following:

“It’s not very surprising that George Will does not think that sexual assault on campus is a big deal. It’s also not very surprising that he thinks that definitions of sexual violence are somehow overly broad because they factor in forms of sexual contact other than penetration. But what is puzzling — about this editorial and the army of nearly identical pieces of rape apologia that find a way into national newspapers with some regularity — is how much one has to ignore in order to argue these points.”

Consider, for example, how he deals with his statistics. He assumes, when he cites them, that the number of women who are sexually assaulted in college — one in five — should automatically match up to the number of assaults reported — only 12 percent. “Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous,” he writes, also calling the statistics “contradictory.” It’s inconceivable to him that the numbers of actual assault victims and the percentage of reports of sexual assault don’t match. He doesn’t understand that not all of these crimes are reported by the victims. He can’t fathom the fact that what the stats actually mean is that two out of every ten women are sexually assaulted in college, but only one of those assault victims goes on to report it.

It is difficult enough for sexual assault victims to come forward as it is. Victims don’t feel safe enough to report it. Or they don’t think they’ll be believed. Or they fear being ostracized by their friends, family, or community, or they go into denial due to the trauma they’ve suffered, or any number of other obstacles that make reporting a sexual assault one of the most difficult things imaginable to do. To assume, therefore, that because the number of reports is lower than the number of women assaulted magically means those who didn’t report it didn’t actually get assaulted is an absolute outrage.

Will cites the story of a Swarthmore College student who, after regularly hooking up with a guy for a few months, decided she wanted to end their sexual relationship. He later fell asleep in her bed after hanging out in her room with her as friends — but although she thought the decision to end the hookup relationship was mutual, he started trying to take her clothes off. She told him she didn’t want to have sex with him, and he said OK. But then he started taking her clothes off again. This time he raped her. Six weeks later, she reported it.

The way Will treats this story, he implies that because it wasn’t violent, it wasn’t rape.

Because she had already had sex with him, it wasn’t rape.

Because she was in her room alone with him, it wasn’t rape.

Because she didn’t report it until six weeks after it happened, it wasn’t rape.

Here’s the thing, George Will: It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t violent. It doesn’t matter that she had already had sex with him before. It doesn’t matter that she was alone in the room with him. And it doesn’t matter that she reported it six weeks after it happened. She said no. That means it was rape. The belief that any of those things could have negated the incident’s status as sexual assault is the reason we still need to talk it about it. It’s the reason rape culture persists. It’s the reason we’re still redefining what rape and sexual assault are. It’s the reason we still need to write 1,000-word responses to articles like George Will’s.

Being a sexual assault victim isn’t a “privilege,” George Will, and people who report sexual assault or who try to prevent it from happening aren’t the problem here. The people who pretend it isn’t a problem? That’s the problem. Which means you’re part of it. I suggest you start contributing to the solution instead of making it worse.