The Washington Poster child for rape denial

June 23, 2014

Madeline Burrows has some thoughts to share with conservative pundit George Will.

IN WHAT could have been an article from the satirical website The Onion, right-wing Washington Post columnist George Will announced earlier this month that campus survivors of sexual assault are "privileged."

Will's article sparked immediate fury and outrage, including from rape survivors who wanted to know: What exactly are the "privileges" they now enjoy?

Hours after the Will article was published, activist Wagatwe Wanjuki created the Twitter hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege to share her own experiences as a sexual assault survivor at Tufts University--where she was asked to leave the school shortly after she demanded university action against the student who assaulted her--and encourage others to do the same.

Like the #YesAllWomen hashtag created after the Isla Vista shootings, which has illuminated the pervasiveness of sexism faced by, yes, all women, #SurvivorPrivilege has shown exactly what sexual assault survivors face when they come forward:

Zerlina Maxwell: "I was given so much medication as a part of my rape kit that on the way 2 precinct my mom pulled over so I could puke #survivorprivilege

Carli Stevenson: Yes, @georgeWillf, going through HIV prophylaxis after being raped & not being able to tell your family isn't hell, it's #SurvivorPrivilege

Robyn Swirling: #SurvivorPrivilege was losing all my friends when they decided it was easier to remain friends with my rapist than stand with me.

Wagatwe Wanjuki: Where's my survivor privilege? Was expelled & have $10,000s of private student loans used to attend school that didn't care I was raped.

George Will
George Will (Gage Skidmore)

Not surprisingly, the hashtag #FireGeorgeWill was also trending by the end of the day his article was published. One major newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has dumped Will's syndicated columns and apologized for publishing his vile article about campus sexual assault.

I DON'T normally advocate that people read the opinion articles of misogynistic dinosaurs, but Will's paranoid rant--and the angry response to it--shows us something about both the twisted depiction of the issue of sexual assault that's considered acceptable in mainstream politics, as well as the growing response from women and men who are ready to challenge these distortions.

For those who don't want to give the Washington Post any Internet readers, here's a summary of Will's "theory" in his column reacting to the first report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault:

The often-cited statistic that one in five women suffered an attempted or completed sexual assault is too high to be real. Using a misleading analysis from a "scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute--which proudly states that its mission is to build "respect and support for the power of free enterprise"--Will asserts that the real number must be more like 2.9 percent or less, not 20 percent.

Definitions of sexual assault that include "not only forcible sexual penetration but also nonconsensual touching" are "capacious"--implying that "nonconsensual touching" is nothing more than a bad hook-up.

"When [colleges] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate." According to Will, coming out as a sexual assault survivor is a fad, latched onto by "privileged young adults" who seek social advance in exchange for declaring their "victimhood."

In short, sexual assault--which Will puts in quotes to indicate his skepticism--is really a figment of feminists' overactive imaginations, not a widespread crisis that demands attention. Women (Will doesn't talk about male survivors) have bad hook-ups, wake up the next day and--because of the incredible social prestige and attractive privileges of being a sexual assault survivor--decide to report their "ambiguous" hook-up as sexual assault.

Will goes on to quote the account of a sexual assault of a Swarthmore College student as evidence of the supposed "ambiguities of hook-up culture": "I basically said, 'No, I don't want to have sex with you.' And then he said, 'Okay, 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."

Will chose this account to fit with the well-worn claims about supposed "gray rape" that have proliferated in recent years to minimize the reality of sexual assault and dismiss feminists who seek to cast a spotlight on the issue.

They date back decades to a previous era when campus sexual assault was the focus of protest. For example, Katie Roiphe's 1993 book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus came out amid Take Back the Night protests across the country.

Roiphe focused much of her shoddily researched book on disputing the statistic that one in four women will be a victim of sexual assault during their lifetime. She was the first to popularize the term "gray rape," writing in The Morning After, "There is a gray area in which one person's rape may be another's bad night."

Like Will, Roiphe plays to the skepticism about rape that is rife in mainstream politics. At one point, she asks, "If I was really standing in the middle of an epidemic, a crisis, if 25 percent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know about it?"

So when Will declares that "the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous," he is following on Roiphe's esteemed tradition of "reasoning": "If no one told me about it, it must not be real."

In reality, both George Will and Katie Roiphe know at least a few people, and probably more than a few, who are sexual assault survivors. But given the stigma, shame and outright denial that accompanies coming out as a sexual assault survivor, many keep silent.

And given the attitudes of Roiphe and Will, I'm not sure why anyone would feel comfortable coming forward to them about their experiences as a survivor.

If it seems like there are more sexual assault survivors today, it is because we are hearing more of their stories. There are not more survivors today than there were five years ago. There are more survivors bravely "coming out"--encouraged by a growing network of activists who understand the importance of breaking the silence.

FOR THOSE of us committed to combating sexual violence, the past few weeks have presented a snapshot of the world that can be confusing.

On the one hand, we have more ugly and blatant evidence of the victim-blaming and sexism that exists in mainstream politics and culture. Will's column on campus sexual assault was followed by another horrendous Washington Post op-ed article suggesting that more marriage would end rape.

Then there was the New York Post's front-page article on the Isla Vista shooting, including a photo of a young woman referred to as Elliot Rodger's "Killer Crush." Her disinterest in Rodgers, the Post states, "lit the fuse that turned him into a murderous madman"--insinuating that women themselves are to blame for deadly violence if they don't feel obligated to make themselves sexually available at all times.

On the other hand, there has been a lot of evidence of people who are fed up by the dominant attitudes about sexual assault.

In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings, activists in Seattle, Portland and other cities took to the streets to bring #YesAllWomen into the streets for a public demonstration. When the men's rights activist group A Voice for Men--which has a whole page on its website devoted to rape denial--announced plans to host a national conference in Detroit, activists launched a national petition and brought together a coalition of feminist, LGBTQ and labor groups to protest the conference--and won.

Students at Tufts, Brown, Columbia and other campuses donned red duct tape on their graduation caps this year to symbolize solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. The formation and the report of the White House task force on campus sexual assault is itself a clear response to the increasingly vocal movement against sexual assault on campuses.

None of this is a matter of coincidence. It is a result of how continued pressure has begun to shift the national conversation around sexual assault.

The thing about a conservative backlash is that it doesn't work so well when our side outnumbers theirs. Since Will's article came out, his official Facebook page has been essentially taken over by people horrified by his rape apologies and misogyny. Even his most recent articles, unrelated to rape apology, are swamped with comments from people fed up with his misogyny--including, it should be noted, self-described conservatives.

Even terms like "rape culture" and "sexual assault survivor," which were rare to hear outside of feminist circles and Women and Gender Studies departments a few years ago, have now gained wider usage.

It was the explosion of SlutWalk demonstrations around the world, the well-organized campaigns against sexual violence on college campuses, the public outcry after the Steubenville, Ohio rape case and community cover-up and all the work of activists in between that has begun to shift the political terrain--and made this movement and its language impossible to ignore.

Activist Dana Bolger, an Amherst College alum and co-founder of Know Your Title IX, had this to say about George Will's diatribe:

I was just talking to a close friend of mine about this the other day. She's dealing right now with intense backlash for telling her story. This is what I told her: Whenever they see us winning--getting our campuses back, inching closer to some semblance of justice and equality in this world--they will without fail double down on their efforts to hold onto their own power and privilege and dominance. That's all this is: them lashing out because they're scared shitless we're winning--and we are.

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