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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