Lisa Sendrow, whose experience of college sexual assault was dismissed by The Washington Post's George Will, slammed the columnist for silencing the voices of survivors and rejected the idea she received any privileges from her status as a survivor, as Will suggested. Instead, she said she was diagnosed with PTSD following her assault and received violent threats after her story was first reported.
Will's June 6 column sparked outrage from women's organizations, U.S. senators, and college rape survivors for suggesting that sexual assault victims -- or people who Will decided were only claiming to be sexual assault victims -- enjoyed "a coveted status that confers privileges." To make his point, Will relied on an anecdote from a Philadelphia magazine article about a young woman from Swarthmore College, implying that he didn't believe her story qualified as an actual incident of assault:
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 didn't name the woman in his column, but Philadelphia magazine did -- this is Lisa Sendrow's story.
Sendrow graduated from Swarthmore in 2013 and now works as a legal assistant. She told Media Matters in an interview over the weekend that she first "tried to avoid the Will piece as much as possible," but after friends pressed her to read it she found the column "infuriating," and felt that his dismissal of her story was dangerous to survivors.
"No one wants to hear that you brought this on yourself," she said, while discussing her reaction to Will's piece. "No one wants to relive the experience or tell that story, when they haven't really had a chance to reflect. You can't really heal if people are telling you that it's your fault. But that's what Will did."
Sendrow explained that she has experienced sexual assault multiple times, but decided to officially report this particular experience and talk to Philadelphia magazine in part because at the time she worked as an advocate for survivors on a campus hotline. "I realized that I could no longer be an advocate and tell survivors to go to the college and report if I wasn't going myself." But the decision wasn't easy, and that contributed to her choosing to wait before initially reporting. "The fact that Will said I waited [to report the assault] -- most women wait awhile. You have to think about what happened, you have to heal."
Research from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control found that 1 in 5 women had been sexually assaulted while in college, and repeat victimization is common. Reporting rates are particularly low on campuses, and campus assailants tend to be repeat offenders. "This is the only sexual assault I've ever reported," Sendrow noted, "because I felt I was the most safe reporting this one."
She added that she "was also raised to think I put myself in this situation, and it took me a really long time. After hearing others' stories I realized it wasn't my fault -- I was raped. I didn't want to be diminished, I didn't want to be afraid."
While the Philadelphia magazine story clearly documented a serious example of sexual assault (notably, Sendrow specifically stated that she did not consent), Sendrow felt that the magazine took her story and others out of context and omitted key details, "which was exactly what we didn't want to happen." Her assault was "more violent than what [the Philadelphia magazine reporter] wrote. The way he made it seem was very small in comparison." Sendrow added that she received "very threatening" messages from her attacker days after the assault, which the Philadelphia story hadn't included. She had hoped that talking to the media would in part help other survivors by showing they no longer had to be afraid and that their stories couldn't be diminished, and was frustrated when that was "exactly what [Will's column] did."
Sendrow also vehemently rejected Will's claim that survivors might have a coveted status. "I absolutely have not received any privileges from sexual assault. [Will] has clearly never experienced the fear of sexual assault," she said. "He clearly has no idea how hard it is to sleep, to walk around, thinking at any moment this person that you live down the hall from could come out."
She saw a counselor and was diagnosed with PTSD following the assault, she said, which "is pretty common for a lot of survivors I know. It did not help my grades, it did not help my social status. I lost a lot of friends ... No one tells you, 'oh you're a survivor, let me give you a free lunch.' No one gives a shit about you. What benefit could we possibly get? Sometimes I feel like I can't have a real relationship because someone might touch me in the wrong way. How is that okay?"
Sendrow told Media Matters she received violent threats after the Philadelphia article was published. One threat said that she and the other women quoted in the story "deserved to be stoned." Others said "I should be raped again, or 'really' raped, that I was a slut, you know, using my sexual background to say I deserved it."
For Sendrow, most upsetting about Will's column was that "he was politicizing sexual assault, he's a conservative columnist, but why should sexual assault be political?" She criticized him for putting the term sexual assault in quotation marks, implying doubt in survivors' stories, and for using her personal story to "describe the experience of all survivors, and [making] it seem very small." She added, "it was mostly upsetting because I don't feel like survivors' voices were heard."
Will's full column, Sendrow said, made it feel "as if women don't have a voice. Anything bad that happens to a woman, it doesn't matter, because we're the ones who are at fault. And this is already what we're told every single day," she concluded. "We're raised all our lives to think this isn't an issue. But this is an issue. This is why people are triggered, this is why people have PTSD. People will go through their lives thinking rape culture isn't real."
In the end, Sendrow wondered whether Will would have been able to similarly dismiss her story of assault if it came from someone close to him.
"What if [Will's] daughter -- I don't know if he has a daughter -- but would he say to her, that this didn't happen?" she asked. "If she came to him crying, or even not crying, but if she came to him and told him this story, would he just say it wasn't real?"