George Will: Being a victim of sexual assault is a "coveted status that confers privileges"

The Washington Post columnist thinks women are lying about sexual assault in order to get "privileges"

Published June 9, 2014 6:55PM (EDT)

George Will               (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
George Will (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington Post columnist George Will doesn't believe the statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Instead he believes that liberals, feminists and other nefarious forces have conspired to turn being a rape survivor into a "coveted status that confers privileges." As a result of this plot, "victims proliferate," Will wrote in a weekend editorial that ran in the Washington Post and New York Post.

Further compounding the crisis of people coming forward about sexual assault to stay de rigueur is the fact that "capacious" definitions of sexual assault include forcible sexual penetration and nonconsensual sexual touching. Which is really very outrageous, according to Will. It is really very hard to understand why having your breasts or other parts of your body touched against your will should be frowned upon.

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.

There is an abundance of anecdotal and statistical evidence to show that most people never come forward about their experiences of assault, including most college students. According to national data, 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police. So how does one go from that to a culture in which "victims proliferate"? Current data holds that only 12 percent of assaults on college campuses are reported. It seems like Will believes that hearing from any victims is hearing from too many victims.

And what exactly are the "privileges" associated with being a survivor of sexual assault? A casual look at both our criminal justice system, military justice system and the academic disciplinary system under scrutiny right now reveals that each tend to punish survivors, not reward them.

When a young midshipman came forward about her alleged assault at the hands of a former Naval Academy football player, she was questioned for 20 hours by 12 attorneys and forced to answer questions about how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex and whether or not she considered herself a "ho" after the alleged assault occurred. When the woman requested a day off after five days of questioning, one attorney said, "We don’t concede there’s been any stress involved.” Another survivor at Columbia University was put on academic probation after she came forward about her assault because the school considered her a "mental health liability."

And the tone of the Onion headline "College Rape Victim Pretty Thrilled She Gets to Recount Assault to Faculty Committee" might not be to everyone's taste, but it pretty much sums up the experience of coming forward about sexual assault in the current university climate. This line from the satirical piece nails it, too:

“I get to go into a room filled with a committee of middle-aged men whose primary concern is upholding the college’s reputation and recount in explicit detail the circumstances of my rape at the hands of another student—I can’t wait,” said the pleased 19-year-old, who noted that she’s particularly looking forward to describing her choice of clothing the night of the assault, explaining the nature of her relationship with her rapist, and entertaining a variety of questions aimed at determining whether she herself invited the attack with her words and actions, all while offering a step-by-step account of the most horrific night of her life.

As far as I can tell, the only "privilege" associated with being a sexual assault survivor in the public eye is that you are maybe slightly more likely -- very, very slightly more likely if you look at the actual conviction rate -- to see your case given serious consideration rather than being ignored entirely by school administrators or law enforcement, which is actually something that happens quite a lot.

You'll also notice that none of these pieces of rape apologia ever address consent in a meaningful way. Will designates a single, condescending line to "the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults," but doesn't have a thing to say about any of it. If men like Will really do believe that most sexual assaults are a byproduct of the "ambiguities of hookup culture," why aren't they writing smug editorials about affirmative consent? If the actual crisis is that young men are being falsely accused of rape at an alarming rate (they are not), then wouldn't some legitimate action be required?

But instead we just get Will's ridiculous column. It seems that even Will doesn't take his own ideas that seriously. His editorial is basically, "I Am Mad That We Are Now Talking About Sexual Assault and Sexual Entitlement. These Conversations Make Me Uncomfortable and Threaten Me. Please Make Them Stop."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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