In his June 5 column, conservative syndicated columnist George Will wrote about the proliferation of sexual assaults on college campuses and the problem those schools are facing as a result. He's not talking about the mounting allegations of Title IX violations, nor the drop in applications at certain schools that have been investigated for mishandling assault. Instead, the "problem" he's referring to is that as colleges make "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges," the number of victims grows.
To say these assertions are ludicrous would be an understatement. The number of victims is related only to the number of assaults, and the numbers keep growing because rape keeps happening. There is no benefit to being raped, nothing about it to covet, on a college campus or otherwise.
St. Louis Dispatch editor Tony Messenger agreed, and last week announced the paper would no longer be running Will's column. Wrote Messenger, "The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it."
But while this particular column of Will's was indeed offensive and inaccurate, that doesn't mean the St. Louis Dispatch was right, or even wise, to discontinue running his column in general. Debate and discussion is important. In fact, debate and discussion are what have helped bring much of the long and ongoing mistreatment of victims by school administrations to light. Over the past few months, it has grown clear that victimhood is pervasive and, at many schools, unwelcomed. Obama's White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was established in response to the growing numbers of claims filed against schools for violations of Title IX by victims no longer willing or able to do as they've been doing for years -- that is, suffer in silence or transfer out. Sexual assault has gotten so bad that women have even started to believe that such behavior is just part of the female experience: A recent study out of Marquette University and published in the journal Gender and Society concluded that girls and young women rarely reported incidents of abuse because they regarded sexual violence against them as "normal."
The upside to running a column such as Will's, however, is that doing so helps raise awareness of the topic and, even more critically, of the misogynistic line of thinking that has let rape culture proliferate as it has, and go unpunished besides. Will writes of 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 let it be clear: There are no "ambiguities" about sexual assault. There is only yes and there is no. There is no such thing as "gray rape." The inability to say no -- she's drunk, she's sleeping -- is not consent. She must be able to say yes; he must be able to hear it.
For many years, schools have done little to educate their students about sexual assault and, in many cases, done little to nothing to protect victims or punish their perpetrators. Or worse: They've discouraged victims from reporting assaults by making the process difficult or by ensuring the outcomes aren't worth the emotional effort. This treatment is only now being called into question.
Views like Will's, however, and the willingness of people like him to express them openly, are what have helped many survivors and their advocates find their voices. They are what have helped to start to put an end to maltreatment that has gone on for far too long. And that's a valuable thing. The airing of questionable views gives others the opportunity to prove how wrong they are. It opens the door for critical discussion and debate. And this is how change happens.
Let George Will have his say, offensive as it is. If we want to encourage victims to have a voice, and to use it, we need to allow their challengers the same privilege.
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