Right-wing media have launched a campaign of mockery, victim-blaming, and denial to dismiss the sexual assault epidemic, particularly on college campuses, and the Obama administration's efforts to curtail the growing problem.
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?"
UPDATE: Washington Post's Erik Wemple reports that the three editors for the Post syndication group who reviewed Will's column were all male. Wemple writes this is "indeed important," adding, "Women are the predominant victims of rape and sexual assault; therefore, they may have some insight on the editing of a column on sexual assault."
George Will doubled down on his claim that sexual assault victims have a "coveted status" on college campuses, refusing to apologize for a recent column that sparked significant backlash.
Will has been under fire from women's rights organizations following the column he wrote earlier this month about "the supposed campus epidemic of rape," in which he claimed efforts to combat the problem "make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." Four U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Robert P. Casey, Jr., wrote a letter condemning the column, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dropped their syndication of his work.
In a June 20 C-SPAN interview, Will doubled down on his conclusion, refusing to backtrack:
C-SPAN: You wouldn't take back any of the words you used?
WILL: No, no.
Will also repeated his claim that universities, the Democratic U.S. senators, and the Department of Education had overstated the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses, dismissing the evidence that shows 1 in 5 women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault, and insisted the definition of assault was too wide and therefore trivialized the true problem.
Will also claimed that he takes "sexual assault somewhat more seriously" than the senators working to help the victims, a claim he previously made in a response letter to them.
The Washington Post stood by Will's column, telling Media Matters that the column was "well within the bounds of legitimate debate."
The Chicago Tribune declined to run George Will's controversial column on sexual assault, labeling it "misguided and insensitive."
Will has been under fire following a column he wrote earlier this month about "the supposed campus epidemic of rape" and how some schools' efforts to curb the problem "make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." The column sparked outrage and calls for his removal from the Washington Post by prominent women's rights groups, including the National Organization for Women and UltraViolet. Several U.S. senators have also criticized Will.
On June 18, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced it was dropping Will's column from the paper following his "offensive and inaccurate" piece.
The Tribune, one of the largest papers in the country, told Media Matters that the paper turned Will's column down after reading it.
In comments to Media Matters, Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of the Tribune, explained why his paper, which runs Will on occasion, passed on the June 7 column.
"I thought the column was misguided and insensitive," Dold told Media Matters Thursday. "We didn't publish it. Marcia Lythcott, the Op-Ed editor, made that decision and it was the right call."
The paper has no plans to abandon Will permanently, however.
"That doesn't mean we pulled Will for that week, though. We don't anchor syndicated columnists," Dold explained. "We run George Will on occasion. I checked our archives and it looks like we've run him four times in the past year. We will continue to consider him on a column by column basis, as we do with other syndicated columnists we buy."
From the June 18 edition of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report:
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the largest newspapers in the Midwest, has dropped George Will's syndicated column, calling the conservative pundit's recent commentary on sexual assault "offensive and inaccurate" and apologizing for its publication.
In a June 7 column, Will disputed evidence that 1 in 5 women on U.S college campuses experience sexual assault, and claimed that efforts to fight what he called "the supposed campus epidemic of rape" have made victimhood a "coveted status." The Post-Dispatch called Will's comments "offensive and inaccurate," and in a June 18 editorial, it announced it would no longer publish Will's syndicated column:
The change has been under consideration for several months, but a column published June 5, in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier. The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it.
As Media Matters has reported, Will's column has drawn significant criticism from women's rights activists, writers, and several U.S. senators. Women's rights group UltraViolet launched a petition drive calling for Will's ouster from the Washington Post. National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill agreed, saying "The Washington Post needs to take a break from his column, they need to dump him," adding that columns like Will's are "actively harmful for the victims of sexual assault."
As the backlash against Will's claims began to heat up, the Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt defended Will in a statement to Media Matters, saying his comments were "well within the bounds of legitimate debate":
George Will's column was well within the bounds of legitimate debate. I welcomed his contribution, as I welcome the discussion it sparked and the responses, some of which we will be publishing on our pages and website. This is what a good opinion site should do. Rather than urge me to silence a viewpoint they disagree with, I would urge others also to join the debate, and to do so without mischaracterizing the original column.
The Post-Dispatch noted that the move to drop Will's column had "been under consideration for several months," but Will's column on sexual assault "made the decision easier." This isn't surprising, given that Will's contributions to public debate have a problematic history of denying facts. According to Discover Magazine, Will has helped to "muddle our collective scientific literacy" by grossly distorting climate data -- a trend that the Los Angeles Times has similarly dubbed "mystifying." Will has also misrepresented the effects of the Voting Rights Act to claim that it has given "a few government-approved minorities ... an entitlement to public offices" and has come under fire for claiming that President Obama owed his success in the 2012 presidential election to his race.
Right-wing media are criticizing the Obama administration for bringing Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged leader of the Benghazi attacks, to trial in a U.S. criminal court. But federal civilian courts have proven significantly more successful at convicting terrorists than military commissions, give terrorists tougher sentences, deprive terror suspects of the "honor" of being considered enemy combatants, and do not prevent the gathering of intelligence.
From the June 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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From the June 14 edition of SiriusXM's Media Matters Radio:
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Four senators have written a letter condemning Washington Post columnist George Will's recent column, which dismissed the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and asserted that the 1 in 5 women who experience sexual assault in college have a "coveted status."
On June 8, Will penned a syndicated op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Post, wherein he dismissed "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, aka 'sexual assault,'" and asserted that the definition of sexual assault is unnecessarily broad because it includes forms of harassment beyond rape. Will went on to dispute the veracity of the statistic that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault in college on the grounds that victimhood "is a coveted status that confers privilege," encouraging victims to "proliferate."
Will's column was roundly condemned for its stigmatization of sexual assault victims, shoddy math, and dismissal of the pervasiveness of sexual assault and the trauma its victims face, and prompted calls for Will's resignation.
On June 12, Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Robert P. Casey, Jr. wrote a letter to Will, censuring his column's trivialization of "the scourge of sexual assault," and requesting that Will listen to students who have experienced sexual assault firsthand:
From the June 9 edition of MSNBC's NOW with Alex Wagner:
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Fox News contributor and Washington Post columnist George Will derided efforts on college campuses to combat the sexual assault epidemic as a ploy to "make victimhood a coveted status that confers privilege."
In a June 7 syndicated op-ed which appeared in The Washington Post and the New York Post, Will dismissed "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, aka 'sexual assault,'" arguing that the definition of sexual assault was too broad because it could include "nonconsensual touching" and disputing the evidence that shows 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault on campuses in the U.S., implying that individuals were pretending to be victims because colleges have made victimhood a "coveted status" (emphasis added):
Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating.
They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ("micro-aggressions," often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.
Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of "sexual assault" victims. It 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.
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% of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12% reporting rate is correct, the 20% assault rate is preposterous.
Education Department lawyers disregard pesky arithmetic and elementary due process. Threatening to withdraw federal funding, the department mandates adoption of a minimal "preponderance of the evidence" standard when adjudicating sexual assault charges between males and the female "survivors" -- note the language of prejudgment.Combine this with capacious definitions of sexual assault that can include not only forcible sexual penetration but also nonconsensual touching. Then add the doctrine that the consent of a female who has been drinking might not protect a male from being found guilty of rape. Then comes costly litigation against institutions that have denied due process to males they accuse of what society considers serious felonies.
Will also criticized colleges and universities for attempting "to create victim-free campuses -- by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimization."
Despite Will's dismissal of the statistics, a report on sexual violence by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that "in a study of undergraduate women, 19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college." Moreover, the dangerous stigmatization of sexual assault victims has kept many from reporting these crimes -- particularly because victims who do report can become the targets of vicious attacks. According to the FBI, people falsely report sexual assault only 3 percent of the time.
From the June 5 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered:
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From the May 28 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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Glenn Beck's The BlazeTV acted out sexual propositions and labeled each skit "RAPE!" in an attempt to mock the prevalence of reported sexual assault.
In response to reports that the 22-year-old who went on a deadly shooting spree in Santa Barbara was inspired by a hatred towards women who had refused his sexual advances, The Glenn Beck Program attempted to debunk the statistic that one in five women have reported experiencing a sexual assault. The May 27 edition of Beck's program dismissed the number -- cited by the Obama administration during the announcement of a new initiative to protect college students from sexual violence -- as a "completely untrue statistic."
As evidence, Beck presented a pre-recorded segment by The Blaze's Stu Burguiere, which featured skit performances of sexual assault scenarios in which network radio host Jeff Fisher propositioned another man in a blonde wig and skirt.
The skits purported to reenact questions from two studies on sexual assault -- the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Report and 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey -- ostensibly to show how the number of sexual assault victims is "massively" inflated: