Feminism

the lies George Will believes about rape

george will
[content note: descriptions of sexual violence]

I’m not going to rehash what other people have criticized in Will’s ridiculous Washington Post piece about how “Colleges Become the Victims of Progressivism” (here’s a DoNotLink, just in case you haven’t seen it yet). There’s already been quite a bit of ink spilled over his assertion that being a rape survivor is a “coveted status”– Amy Davidson broke it down really well in The New Yorker and Wagatwe Wanjuki started the fantastic #SurvivorPrivilege– so I’m not going to waste your time by going over that again.

Instead, I’m going to talk about the rape myths Will believes, and how believing those lies created something as monstrous as “being a rape survivor is a coveted status.”

Here’s the salient portion:

Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. sexual assault. Herewith, a Philadelphia magazine report about Swarthmore College, where in 2013 a student “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. ‘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. Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of sexual assault victims.

Will did some manipulative and dishonest things in this article, but the most heinous is that he misleads his readers into thinking that sexual assault and rape are not clearly defined (not original to me, my friend Renee Doiron pointed it out); the entirely made-up nebulousness surrounding these definitions, he argues, is going to give vindictive women the ability to ruin the lives of good men, and these women are being spurred on by the liberals and progressives taking over college campuses everywhere. Because, after all, being a rape victim is a “coveted status.”

It’s pretty clear that he thinks that Lisa Sendrow is a lying whore, considering he puts “sexual assault” inside scare quotes twice. But why does he think she’s lying, that what happened to Sendrow is a good example of a woman claiming to be a victim in order to get “privileges”?

Well, there’s a few possible reasons, and each of these probably contributed to this disaster of an article in messy, complicated ways:

1) He believes that giving prior consent makes you unrapeable.

This is, unfortunately, a pretty common myth, and it’s the main reason why police officers don’t consistently investigate reports when the defendant had previously been consensually intimate with the victim, or when the victim had been in a relationship with his/her rapist.  It’s also the reason why people like Phyllis Schlafly say that marital rape is impossible.

Any previous history of consensual sexual activity, whatever it is, from cuddling to kissing to frenching to third-basing to sex, does not matter. Ever. If she or he or ze is not currently saying (or clearly indicating, in a trust-based relationship) “yes, please!” then you are a) a creepy jerk or b) a rapist.

2) He believes that “legitimate rape” looks a certain way; i.e., it is violent, and the victim fights back.

This is why you hear a lot of rage-inducing things about rape from men– they have no idea what it’s like to be a woman and to face the threat of sexual violence. To a dude, violent reactions seem appropriate and normal, and they don’t have to contend with the idea that fighting back almost guarantees escalation and is not a solution for women.

When it comes to rape, fighting back in the way that people like Will conceive of it is rarely ever an option. [TW] First of all, when a cis women is being raped, her vagina is probably being penetrated– this is incredibly painful when you are not aroused or lubricated, and “fighting” by flexing your kegels, closing your legs, or resisting in other ways makes the pain much more intense. As a defense, women frequently do things during rape that help to mitigate or minimize that pain– they tilt their hips, they open their legs. This is not a conscious decision, but our bodies know what’s necessary in order to help protect us from long-term damage like cervical bruising or vaginal tears that could require stitches.

However, a man like Will sees “just laying there” as a form of silent consent. That men tend to be physically much stronger and larger than women doesn’t even enter into their minds.

3) He believes that being raped is so obvious to women that we instantly understand exactly what happened.

Sendrow did not immediately report her rape to anyone. In fact, what Will conveniently does not mention is that when she did tell a dean that she’d been raped, she was dismissed. I also did not report my rape right away– for the simple reason that I did not understand at first that what had happened to me was rape. I’d told him no, I’d tried to persuade him to stop, and eventually I gave up and just laid there because he started cursing at me.

I didn’t know I’d been raped because I believed all the same myths that Will does. I thought rape was violent. I thought you could only be raped by a stranger. Because it was my fiancé, and because he hadn’t drugged me or clubbed me over the head, I didn’t think it could be rape. Sendrow was in a similar position. I get e-mails on a weekly basis that are stories from women who are just now coming to terms that they were raped. Sometimes, we just don’t want to admit that it happened. We don’t want to acknowledge that we were that vulnerable.

4) He believes that “basically saying no” doesn’t count. If you don’t scream “no!”, it’s not rape.

This is why I advocate for enthusiastic consent. The “no means no” standard that’s the popular understanding of consent just doesn’t cut it. A 1999 study by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith shows that it’s actually extraordinarily uncommon for people to say the word “no” when they’re refusing something– we use a lot of other things, like body language and soft-sounding phrases like “I’m not interested.” What their study revealed (their results are broken down here by Thomas Millar) is that everyone understands when someone is refusing, even if they’re not explicitly saying the word “no”; in fact, actually using the word “no” is considered impolite and rude.

Women, especially, have to navigate a world where we could be in danger, but it’s impossible to tell the difference between Elliot Rodger and Mr. Rodgers until one of them pulls out a gun or drugs you. Because of that, we have a lot of things we fall back on– which includes avoiding giving a hard no. Men like Will do not live in that world, so they don’t have to think about what it would be like to face a man who is blatantly refusing to get a hint and what women have to ask themselves: if I get forceful with this person, is he going to hurt me?

There are probably others, but these are the ones that immediately leaped out to me.

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  • To my shame, up through my late teens/early 20s, I believed more or less all of those 4 points. Even more recently, 2 and 3, particularly 2. These are the beliefs that I was indoctrinated with, starting from when I was a small child. I know, from personal experience, how difficult it is to break free of all that. Once you get outside the bubble, it is readily apparent how ludicrous and offensive these kinds of beliefs are. Very few people within that culture are able to do that. However, the onus is on them, if they want to be ethical human beings, to periodically evaluate their beliefs, in a more than cursory way. To engage in a little meta-cognition, and not be so hell-bent on maintaining their malicious ignorance. I’m thankful for posts like this, explaining what should be obvious to everyone. To someone who is starting to question the narrative they live in, they are like a light in the darkness.

    • I’d go further and say that up until I started reading this blog, I subconsciously had internalized at least a couple of those points. It wasn’t until I’d had them expressly pointed out to me that I’d seen the blind spots that I had in my life. I still know many well-educated, otherwise quite liberal people who’ve argued that sex without consent in marriage is somehow different from sex without consent outside marriage. It’s why I’m happy to see the Obama Administration increasing pressure on colleges to get better at handling sexual assault. I’m hopeful that we can make some changes to help people realize that this isn’t a good system.

      • I agree. Definitely. Unless I kind of consciously stop and think, I still have those old ingrained knee jerk reactions sometimes. It’s really easy to slip into victim blaming, and I’m sure I have many blind spots that have not yet been pointed out to me. And yes, absolutely, there’s a large general problem with this and it is not solely confined to fundies. I hope that too.

    • Hattie

      I feel the same way. There were some weird cultural under-currents in the isolated homeschooling world I grew up in, so it’s very startling and refreshing to see that stuff dealt with.

      • Hattie

        Aaaand that was supposed to be in response to Jeremy’s first comment.

        Oh well.

        • That’s just what WordPress does with comments. It’s a little frustrating. :/

  • The fact that we have historically framed this issue by suggesting that the person who isn’t consenting to the conduct is required to indicate their lack of consent is ridiculous. It is also the only type of human interaction where consent is essentially presumed until lack of consent is voiced. If I take your money, I can’t argue in my defense that you didn’t tell me not to take your money. I have to have actual consent, not actual lack of consent, before I have stolen from you. Imagine how crazy I would sound if the police came to interview me, and I said “hey, Samantha never said I couldn’t take the $100.00 she had in her wallet.” In the same way, if I punch you in the face, there is no requirement that you have articulated your desire not to be punched in the face in order for me punching you to be an assault.

    There are no other human interactions – aside from sex – where agreement is presumed until it is repudiated. Accepting “no means no” as the framework for determining a sexual assault was a horrible tactical error in the 1980’s when that phrase gained prominence, because it accepted this basic framework as the way that sexual interactions are supposed to work.

    In reality, “yes means yes” and that’s that. It is not too much to ask between two people who are about to engage in an act of sexual intimacy that consent be genuinely and clearly articulated. And if that means that there are boys out there who won’t get laid because they can’t get their girlfriends to an active “yes”, rather than just a passive lack of a “no,” then they are too immature to be engaged in that kind of intimacy as a couple anyway.

    • Your first paragraph really made me chuckle. You raise a very interesting point — I had never considered it from that angle before, but I think what you are saying is true. I suppose “no means no” is better than nothing, but I think you’ve sold me on why “yes means yes” is better. I think that in a stable, trust based relationship, as Sam calls them, it’s probably okay to have a more implied kind of thing going on there, but I think in general, yeah, let’s do it right and approach it from that angle. Getting an active yes doesn’t require your girlfriend to fill out paperwork in triplicate, and I 100% agree that if that is an insurmountable barrier then they shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing anyway.

      • Exactly. The people who oppose the whole “actual consent” thing frame it as though it will require some absurd, rote process. “May I now touch your breast?” “Why, yes, you may now touch my breast.” “May I slip my hand inside your underwear?” “Certainly, you may now slip your hand inside my underwear,” which is just ridiculous.

        But if we assume that the ideal for a sexual relationship is two individuals who are actively consenting, and who are prepared to take personal responsibility for their sexuality, then it becomes a much less ridiculous idea and is just as protective of boys as it is of girls. And if we just, as a society, let go of the notion that sex is supposed to be a pursuit, a conquering, something inflicted on a shy, doe-like girl who must be convinced, persuaded and otherwise compelled into doing something that she must pretend she doesn’t want to do, then the whole thing becomes much more clear.

        Stop shaming girls when they desire sex. Stop shaming boys when they don’t. Make it clear that sexual intimacy is important, and that it is a joint decision that both parties must actively seek, and then this whole idea of “she never said no” will become defunct. If a man finds himself in the position of wondering if his partner is consenting because she hasn’t said no, then the logical thing to do is to just ask – are you into this? Do you want this? And if she isn’t emotionally prepared to say yes, then accept that she is ambivalent and leave. The worst thing that happens is that you don’t get laid. The best thing that could happen is that you have both figured out something important about yourselves.

        • Not trying to spam up the thread here, but this first paragraph made me chuckle more, lol. And I do think we need to change the narrative to what you are saying. I don’t know how to accomplish that, but the need seems clear to me. The “she never said no” trope needs to die, quickly. This sort of paradigm is obviously most harmful towards women/girls. You can make pretty compelling arguments that that is in fact a feature, not a bug. However, it’s really no good for men and boys, either.

  • While this makes me angry I take it as an encouragement that George Will is getting a lot of flak for this (as he should)

  • Jeff

    ““being a rape survivor is a coveted status.”

    That’s not what he said, and it’s a bit reckless to give the impression that it is.

    I don’t think Will wrote a good piece — he strained much too hard to find irony in government encroachment into academia, but his examples don’t really support this point (I think he’d have been better off focusing on the idea of the Education Department “rating” colleges, which is plenty outrageous on its own…).

    However, I don’t think your four attempts at mind-reading his beliefs about rape are really plausible, insofar as it’s not possible to find support for any of them in the piece itself — they’re just speculation on your part.

    I think a position that can claim better support from the article is something more like this: that Will probably believes that young people who engage in, as he sees it, reckless and irresponsible behavior (as Will puts it, “the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.”), and end up doing something harmful or having something harmful done to them, do not have the same claim to victim-hood as a person who is, say, randomly targeted or violently assaulted or what have you.

    Of course, you don’t have to agree with Will’s position (I can pretty much guess what you’ll say in response), but I think that, for better or worse, that’s what Will is attempting to say.

    • “They [colleges] are learning that when they say campus victimizations are 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.”

      It’s the thesis of his article. It’s not reckless. It’s what he said.

      do not have the same claim to victim-hood as a person who is, say, randomly targeted or violently assaulted or what have you.

      That’s two rape myths right there: rape is violent, and rapes are committed by strangers. Or, at least, that violent, random rape is more traumatic than a rape done to you by someone you trust who betrayed you.

      Yeah, nope. Both are traumatic. Both are victims.

      • Jeff

        “It’s the thesis of his article. It’s not reckless. It’s what he said. ”

        You put it in quotes, as though you were using actual words. You weren’t. I also don’t think you accurately captured the thesis of his article with your interpretation, but that’s neither here nor there — you’re welcome to argue for what you interpreted his article to mean. But you shouldn’t put words in his mouth (or thoughts in his head).

        “Yeah, nope. Both are traumatic. Both are victims.”

        It’s not about determining which situation is more traumatic, or at least, that doesn’t appear to be a major concern for Will. His emphasis, as I argued, appears to be more with which situation is more sympathetic. He appears to be less sympathetic toward people who engage in reckless behavior. It’s your prerogative to disagree with him and be mad at him about that, of course, but at least pay him the courtesy of being mad at him about the position he actually appears to hold!

        • Jeff

          “using [his] actual words”, sorry…

          • Those, actually, are his exact words, in the very first paragraph of the his article. http://www.donotlink.com/framed?43802

            The second thing Sam quotes are her words.

            Let me add a quote from Will that I think kind of illustrates his attitude: “Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.””

            The supposed epidemic. “Sexual assault” in scare quotes. The whole idea that “claiming” to be a victim somehow rewards you is ludicrous.

          • Jeff

            The quote in question was from the original post: “being a rape survivor is a coveted status”. That’s not a direct quote of Will, and, I claim, is not an accurate paraphrase, either. For one thing, Will’s piece isn’t really about rape, it’s about victim-hood.

            Whether or not one agrees with Will, I think he has a defensible point with respect to the proliferation of victims and the assault on “privelege”. I think he has a defensible point that hook-up culture promotes reckless behavior that can lead to harmful consequences.

            But I do agree with you that he is trying to connect dots that aren’t really there when he tries to link these two points to imply that there’s some degree of correlation between victims of assault and “victims” of OPP (other people’s privelege). He should have stuck to one point or the other. The problem is that he wanted to take a whack at the Administration, whose self-insertion into the academic sphere seems largely is related to the former kind of victim, less so the latter. So, this creates a third idea that also doesn’t work well with the other two.

          • I think he has a defensible point that hook-up culture promotes reckless behavior that can lead to harmful consequences.

            Hook-up culture doesn’t lead to harmful consequences. Rapists raping people leads to harmful consequences.

          • Jeff

            Sigh. Take the hot-button issue off the table, if it’s helpful. A certain celebrity was driving his car 100 mph. He crashed the car and was killed. We can assume that he had no intention of crashing nor any desire to crash; however, in that case, reckless behavior (driving in considerable excess of the speed limit) created /risk/ of a negative outcome, which, tragically, was realized.

            (Of course, avoiding reckless behavior doesn’t reduce risk to zero, but it does reduce risk in comparison to engaging in reckless behavior.)

            Will’s overall point is, I think, that engaging in reckless behavior carries risk that one will either do or experience something that one would otherwise prefer not to do or experience. And, obviously, he categories hook-up culture + binge drinking as “reckless”. It’s a defensible point. Defensible doesn’t mean “inarguable”, it doesn’t mean “mathematically proven”; it just means that a case can be made for it, or that it may have some points in its favor.

            I don’t wish to personally defend that argument beyond saying that it’s defensible, and I don’t particularly mind either way whether you find it persuasive or not. But I don’t think it’s prudent to dismiss it from consideration out-of-hand or to simply shout it down.

          • Timothy

            Surely that doesn’t work as the act of driving a car in a dangerous manner is a purposeful action that endangers yourself and others. surely a better one would be crossing the road, even those that follow the rules can be harmed.

          • I don’t think you’ll be able to bring him around, Sam. Good of you to try though. I remember what it was like to think like that. There were women, and some men, in my life who also tried to help me see. It was good of them to try, also. When you are a man, and you are in that culture, it is very, very difficult to get what seems so obvious on the outside. I honestly can’t imagine how frustrating that must be for someone like you. Not trying to be condescending, Jeff, or start a flame war. Just sharing my experience. I started from what seems to be a similar place to yours.

          • Jeff

            Mission not accomplished — your comment drips with completely misplaced condescension. I have absolutely no idea what in the world you mean by being in “that culture” — the culture in which rape is a-ok, hunky-dory, pas de probleme? That’s insane, and rude beyond description.

          • Courtney

            Your comments here are deserving of condescension at best and hostility at worst. I’m sorry that Jeremy hurt your feelings by bringing attention to your victim blaming but if you wanna talk about being rude beyond description, how about comparing being a victim of rape, which is 100 percent outside of one’s own control to a driver who gets in an accident because they are breaking the law by going 100 miles an hour which is something they have 100 percent within their control. The rape victim is not the driver, the rape victim is the passenger who was also killed because the driver broke the law. And guess who the driver is? You got it, the rapist.

  • Marie

    Samantha have you seen the #survivorprivilege hashtag on twitter yet? It was started by rape survivor Wagatwe Wanjuki to reclaim the term and illustrate just how Wrong george will is with his heinous rape-apologist viewpoints. She started using it to talk about her own experience with rape (and the secondary trauma that survivors are put through) using the hashtag, and it has caught on. A (safe) article about her is here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/rossalynwarren/survivorprivilege-trends-on-twitter-after-columnist-says-rap

    In the midst of all the terrible things happening right now, it was a light in my day to hear her being so articulate. I’m sharing in the hope that it might do the same for you.

    Thank you for all that you write. I admire your bravery in speaking out. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I know for me, after growing up in a conservative Christian environment as a woman, I still struggle to articulate and trust my own viewpoints. I appreciate that you have taken the step to do that. Getting in touch with yourself and facing your past is so hard. I just really respect you for what you do here on the blog.

  • Marie

    ^^ I should quickly clarify: the article I linked above contains TRIGGERS because it involved rape survivors sharing their stories. Mostly the aftermath and how they were treated by others when they spoke out about what had happened to them.

    So definite trigger warning for that.

    I meant “safe” in the sense that it is written from a pro-survivor anti-rape standpoint. I hope I didn’t trigger anyone by accident!

  • Jackalope

    Coming into the discussion late, but I really appreciated the link to the study about using a “soft no” instead of a direct no. I’ve found that when I talk with the men around me, they generally understand when I mean know. If one of them asks me over for dinner, for example, and I say, “Oh, sorry, I’m busy that night,” they get that I just told them no. If they ask me about borrowing something and my facial expression changes, many of them will say, “Oh, I see that won’t work out, never mind.” Etc. (I know the last one doesn’t work so well for someone with, say, Asperger’s, but I hope you see what I mean.) I know they can figure out the “soft no” for sex as well. (And getting a yes doesn’t have to mean asking about every single tiny action; it can also mean just checking in with your partner every so often to make sure both of you are still having fun. Or something like that.)

    And thank you for pointing out that in some circumstances women have to weigh whether it will be more dangerous to respond with force or not. I’ve had self-defense classes and feel reasonably prepared should I be attacked. I’ve also had situations (none of which led anywhere too awful, thankfully) when I had to instantly ascertain whether I would keep myself safer or put myself in more danger by giving a forceful response. Sometimes deflecting or pretending to go along until you’re at a point where you can get yourself out safely is a better response, especially if the man attacking you is much bigger than you and in an outright exchange of force the odds are in his favor.

    (Also, I love the enthusiastic yes idea. Not only does it put ALL of us, both men and women, in a better place as far as safety, but it also sounds like a lot more enjoyment for both parties.)