On George Will and the "conferred privilege" of sexual assault
This past Sunday, George Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post wrote a column in which he argues that colleges and universities in the United States have fallen “victim” to “victimhood.” He claims that, thanks to some recent attention on the national stage being paid to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, that “victimhood” has become an enviable status. One that apparently comes with perks. He writes, “When they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”
Exactly what “privilege” Will is referring to is unclear. The lasting psychological and physical ramifications of sexual assault are fairly well-documented: anxiety, depression, amnesia, dissociation, flashbacks. Does Will imply that the “privilege” that victims of sexual assault seek is to be heard and believed? That is not a privilege. That’s simply being a person.
In an excellent piece over at the Atlantic, Mary Adkins writes about the misguided definition of rape as “force;” this implication that, in order for sexual assault to be considered sexual assault, the victim must be bruised and battered, possibly killed. That is, the violation is only a violation if the victim really looks like a victim. In this piece, Adkins writes about the complex systems of awareness and volition that go into sexual assault. On a very fundamental level, Adkins writes, men (for the most part) are bigger than women, and women are aware of this fact. That awareness, even leaving aside the other cultural messages that tell women they are not worthy of voice, means that sometimes saying “no” is about as brave as a woman can be.
In his column, Will recounts an incident at Swarthmore that was reported in Philadelphia magazine. The student and a male companion had been drinking (and they had a previous sexual relationship, though it had ended). The male student started making advances. She said no. He continued anyway. She made the decision to not fight. Will writes, “Six weeks later the woman reported that she had been raped.”
Will dismisses the woman, and one can almost feel the word “hysteria” trying to creep into his prose. He not-so-subtly accuses women of over-reporting sexual assault, as if there is simply no way that women are actually assaulted with such frequency, particularly on college campuses. despite the fact that most statistics point to sexual assault actually being under reported.
Will’s dismissal of the (exhausting and maddening) reality of the prevalence of sexual assault is part of the same problem that has been occurring for decades. Women who are sexually assaulted often try to blame themselves first. They work hard to absolve their attackers. If they do muster up the courage and the will to speak out, they are often shamed, gossiped about, and subjected to humiliating questioning and invasive procedures. As Mary Adkins writes, sometimes it can be easier to just not speak out and not be a victim: “There isn't a term for a non-victim, because that's just a person. Just a person is what we want to be.”
The “proliferation of victims” that Will is referring to is most likely a closer reflection of the willingness of victims to speak up about their experiences. It is the result of an expectation that experiences are valid, and that the voices of victims matter. We are encountering a similar moment (or decade) in the Catholic church right now, as victims of sexual abuse from decades past are coming forward and making themselves heard, sometimes facing criticism and skepticism from the people who are supposed to love and support them the most.
A couple of days ago, Pope Francis issued a prayer via Twitter: “Let us pray for all victims of sexual violence in conflict, and those working to end this crime.”
Let us pray for all victims of sexual violence in conflict, and those working to end this crime. #TimeToAct— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 10, 2014
The first step in ending sexual violence is to make it known that it is a reality. We must know the extent of the wound. Only then can we begin to heal.