George Will and the Latest in Rape-Denialism

The conservative columnist is peddling a toxic fantasy. Some people are buying.
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George Will speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

George Will speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

There is a world, my friends, where collegiate rape does not exist, a polity where sexual assault is no more than a political fever-dream. This land is the 11 cubic inches of real estate inside George Will’s skull, where synapses continue to fire with signal irregularity.

On Friday, we learned that Will really doesn’t believe in campus rape. Or rather, that he views campus rape as an exceedingly rare and delicate thing, a magical exercise with the enviable byproduct of “victimhood ... a coveted status that confers privileges.” Will has been twisting the meaning of “privilege” like a pretzel since he first gripped a crayon. It is of obvious note that Will was elevated in successive male-dominated spheres in successive male-dominated decades. The only time he was treated as an object was when they made a George Will bobblehead.

Hearing male Anglos rail about femino-fascism on America’s campuses is more or less seasonal—oh look, the dogwoods are flowering; there’s our first tornado warning; George Will is writing a column about rape.

Hearing male Anglos rail about femino-fascism on America’s campuses is more or less seasonal—oh look, the dogwoods are flowering; there’s our first tornado warning; George Will is writing a column about rape. As the beleaguered Men’s Right Movement recovers from its recent bad publicity in Santa Barbara, California, Will has manfully offered to represent the older generation. If school were still in session, I would have my undergraduates diagram his argument. After stripping away everything in scare quotes, any sentence including the word “Biden,” and ignoring entirely certain gross generalities, we would note that Will’s conceptual frame is that of the “regulatory state,” a gang of technocrats who overburden private universities by insisting that schools actually respond to reports of sexual assault.

Will casts the Obama administration as dunce-like cavaliers, “riding to the rescue of ‘sexual assault’ victims.” When he isn’t calling Obama a failed cowboy, or a darker-hued Don Quixote, Will busies himself with the mixed-metaphor word-soup so favored by full-time non-reporting opinion-havers:

[The administration] vows to excavate equities from 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.

Archaeology and mixology are separate metaphorical realms, and entirely different departments, even on our most progressive campuses. But rape is also representable in statistical terms—terms that Will dismisses with seeming ease:

The administration’s crucial and contradictory statistics are validated the usual way, by official repetition; Joe Biden has been heard from. The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous.

Only “simple” if you’re using the word in its derogatory 19th-century denotation.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent.

Yes, AEI, that coven of women’s liberation, reassures us that only three percent of women at the Ohio State University were sexually assaulted between 2009 and 2012; while we’re fiddling with numbers, this outrageous underestimate would nonetheless scale to 4.5 million women nationwide. The AEI chose a Big Ten school for its undercooked study; such schools are rife with fraternal doings and often considered rather rapey, and Perry’s results are thereby all the more conciliating, theoretically, except that if you have spent any time at a Big Ten school (or an SEC school, or an Ivy League school) you’ll agree that AEI should spend its munificence on worthier projects than proving college rape doesn’t exist.

It does. Katie McDonough delivers the efficient case at Salon:

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.”

I myself have seen the heel-dragging in action. I have stood with a young woman and hectored a university doctor (plus several poor well-meaning nurses) until, with red face, the doctor finally agreed to administer a rape kit “this time.” I work with academic advisees who report their firsthand experiences and secondhand concerns via the fundamentally non-punitive SAFE program. I am honored and troubled each semester by the courage with which my students address sexual violence (“micro-aggression,” Will prefers to call it, scare-quotes included gratis). Students who see or speak no evidence of sexual predation are a slender minority indeed. But I’ll have Heritage run some numbers for you.

Perry’s survey does not serve Will long; the columnist’s central truck is with the academy’s perceived touchy-feeliness, when of course he's the one dismissing hard truths—numbers, sworn testimony, not to mention the evidence of tearing, bruising, scarring, and bleeding that we find in rape kits. Will’s argument depends on carefully stoked numbers, but in the end its doomed premise is a data-agnostic premise of feeling—an almost-ironic sense that the Academy, alleged to have invented “hookup culture,” is being pilloried by the decadent, aging liberal technocrats whom it produced in the first place. Let’s lay aside how offensive this notion is to anyone who has been assaulted, or who cares for a victim of assault. Will’s airy argument cracks its hull on traditional shoals: Are we talking in earnest about restoring safety (moral clarity, if Will prefers) to American universities, or are we reveling in the sordid misfortunes of the liberal arts?

It is salutary that academia, with its adversarial stance toward limited government and cultural common sense, is making itself ludicrous. Academia is learning that its attempts to create victim-free campuses — by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations — brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state that progressivism celebrates.

This is a cheap irony, not the dynastic one Will seems rather proud of. “Intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant,” indeed. Do we truly lose “autonomy, resources, prestige and comity” when a school takes a fearless moral inventory of its fraternities, its counseling services, its unspoken sexual politics? Does mild intercession by the Department of Education, on campuses that have a disturbing record of whitewashing rape, truly “disregard ... due process”? Why does Will plant scare-quotes around terms like “survivors,” “aggression,” “sexual assault,” as though these are equivocal, fallacious, or politically subversive terms?

There is a malignancy at the heart of such pieces, a peculiar desperation among white male writers who rode the Boomer train and now complain of “collegiate privilege,” as though today’s “especially privileged young adults” will have the same easy arc that Will enjoyed. He inveighs against the apparent fiction of campus rape—with no firsthand experience and a potful of soggy numbers—for the same reason that P.J. O’Rourke sought to demoralize the Rutgers class of 2014: Both were educated back when we read dead white guys exclusively (the deader and whiter the better; all of the professors were white, and many were almost dead), and education these days has lost its Anglo, or really Grecian, moral center (passing over the buggery of small boys and Athens’ general military philosophy of non-intervention), and now a few nice college republicans are getting accused of rape by girls who totally had it coming.

Many years ago, George Will read Don DeLillo’s Libra and called the book “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship.” Will’s latest think [sic] piece, in turn, is an act of social vandalism and bad writing. I used to like his bad writing, the way you like any bad writing: by suffering through it in the promise of that perfect clunker. But George Will has a daughter, and any half-sane parent will be terrified at sending a daughter to college, and even the most hardened paleo-conservatives among my acquaintance do not squander their time on rape-culture denial. This column is a truly bizarre and unforgivable piece of work, and despite my love for baseball I must state that its author, too, is a bizarre and unforgivable piece of work. Even Tucker Carlson has stopped dressing like him.

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