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Dirty Words

I am sick of listening to and reading the words of men like George F. Will, a pulitzer-prize winning journalist currently writing for The Washington Post. His most recent piece, published this past Friday, sets out to mock academic institutions that have found themselves embroiled in Title IX suits over allegations of misconduct related to the treatment of sexual assault on college campuses. If these institutions eventually find that federal oversight “diminishes their autonomy, resources, prestige and comity”, Will argues, it “serves them right. They have asked for this.”

I am sick of men like George F. Will, who can deploy this brand of rhetoric used by rape apologists — “she was asking for it” — without consequences. The misogyny and implied violence in that particular statement isn’t even the most offensive thing about this column. The most offensive thing about this column isn’t calling rape a form of “micro-aggression” or even the way he throws around the terms “victim”, “victimization” and “victimhood”, as if they mean the same thing.

Men like George F. Will use the word “victim” as a slur, and I take that personally. On July 5, 2000, a man I knew — a man I had once loved and trusted — held a taser to my throat and took over the use of my car; he drove me to a basement apartment he had rented for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. He said he would kill me if I didn’t have sex with him, if I didn’t make love to him and make him believe it was real. In the police reports regarding that case, I am identified as Lacy Johnson, VICTIM. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t try to shirk that label. I hold my head up high. I work at my job. I shower my children with kisses. I shop and walk in the street.

What is most offensive, most sickening, about the recent column by George F. Will is how he positions himself as an authority on the experience of a woman he’s never met. He quotes at length an article from Philadelphia magazine about Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts institution enrolling less than 2,000 students, where there has been a recent upsurge in complaints of sexual misconduct. Of the many complaints and allegations the original article reports — by women who have been pinned to beds, or against walls, or to the ground, women who can’t recount these stories without tears — George F. Will singles out one woman, who was in her room one night in 2013 with a former sexual partner:

“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.’”

Will’s comments about this account are brief: “Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped. Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims.”

It is clear that Will has chosen this woman’s story because he believes this is not, in fact, an account of rape, but of the “supposed campus epidemic of rape”, not of sexual assault but “sexual assault.” According to Will, the woman is not a victim, but “hypersensitive, even delusional,” a “survivor” not of trauma but of her own persistent victimhood.

Will apparently shares this view with the administrator to which the woman reported the assault in 2013, six weeks after it had occurred. Will’s column doesn’t quote this section of the article, but the woman goes on to recount how the administrator told her she must be mistaken because the student she accused was “such a good guy.” Why is it that men in positions of authority, like this college administrator, like George F. Will, would rather believe their own distant social impressions than the word of a woman asking for help?

In recent weeks there have been fervent — sometimes bitter, sometimes transcendent — discussions about sexual violence in the United States. I hope these discussions will continue, in both public and private ways. But what concerns me is that we haven’t yet found a way to address what’s at the root of this violence. Whatever it is, it’s not uncommon. Days after George F. Will expressed his everlasting apathy toward the experience of young women, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson co-argued that young women would be raped less if they simply got married to men who could protect them from rapists. Originally titled “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married”, the article suffers from the same sickening indication of the misogynist beliefs far too many people hold: the body of a woman, especially a sexually active woman, can belong to anyone but herself.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear to men like George F. Will: any time a woman is forced or coerced into having sex, she doesn’t become a victim by reporting it. She doesn’t gain anything: no protection, no “special privileges,” no “coveted status.” In fact, she often puts herself at tremendous risk: maybe the man will seek some kind of violent retribution, maybe she’ll be shunned or ostracized, or asked degrading questions by a college administrator. Maybe a so-called journalist will gaslight her in the pages of The Washington Post, where he will judge her, will put her experience in scare quotes.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter if a woman has been “hooking up with that guy for three months” or even if she hooked up with him that same day. If a woman says no, and a man has sex with her anyway, it is rape. If she reports it, she’s not delusional, or hypersensitive. She’s brave.

Lacy M. Johnson  is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.

 

 

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Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

Comments: 9

(9) Comments

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Disowning the label “victim,” is a powerful practice for anyone who has been abused, attacked, or raped. After 35 years, I recently spoke of my experience, which I thought I had completely overcome, only to find fresh feelings oozing out. But with courage, I did not refer to myself as “victim,” instead I talked about my abuser… for the first time… ever. Courage, my friend, you are an inspiration to us all.

  2. Kathy Berney says:

    George Will, who some, in all seriousness, consider a “genius”, doesn’t even possess the basic human ability, (an aspect of social intelligence), to empathize with another human who is not just like him. Narcissism is pathological self-centeredness fueled by insecurity. Maybe his misogynistic stance is the result of desperately converting early rejection into self-perceived “strength”, thus allowing him to obtain, in his own mind, superior status. That erroneous notion is injected deeply into his self-concept, and sadly, it leaches into his writing. Anyone with human insight can see Will has been unable to rise above his developmental social struggles, (which explains why he holds so many of us in contempt). He self-gratifies by composing, while grabbing his bully pulpit, editorials which put those unfathomable females in their place. The result is his transparent “journalistic essays”. Surprisingly, my beef isn’t primarily with the damaged, immature Will. It’s with every publisher and editor who reads Will’s obviously simplistic rants and grants them legitimacy via publication. If Will wrote about African Americans and asserted they were their own victims due to an inherent lack of self-motivation, would that be legitimatized by subsequent publication in “The Washington Post”?

  3. Rachel Crawford says:

    “If a woman says no, and a man has sex with her anyway, it is rape. If she reports it, she’s not delusional, or hypersensitive. She’s brave.”

    Succinct and perfect. Thank you.

  4. Hi Lacey,

    I agree. Mr. Will angered me. What a white, male, moron. I am also a white male, but my moron-icity isn’t of that kind, to be sure. Mr. Will does not represent me in this regard. The whole system needs to change. I think that the current issue in it’s light these days is reflective of a whole about how societies think of women. It’s sad indeed that in this century we are still behaving like we were centuries ago.

    I would like to introduce you to Trauma Release Exercises. If you look up trauma prevention dot com, you might find a provider in Houston. My guess is you might be more comfortable with a woman training if if indeed you are interested. If not I would gladly set up an appointment. I train people in TRE for the following four reasons:

    – It’s the body’s natural way of discharging stress and trauma
    – It doesn’t require the presence of a clinician once trained
    – It doesn’t require talking about or re-living traumatic events
    – Because of the second one, it’s very cost effective

    My partner and I can train people via Google Hangouts for long distance people who contact us. Our last long distance client was in Naples, Florida. Once you’ve learned to process, it’s yours forever. It was discovered by a man who lived in war zones and had PTSD fairly bad, which is all info on the website.

    I think you can shake off “victim.” TRE is working for me, and I too was sexually abused.

    I hope you continue to heal, and write. I would like to see a lot of belligerent women and men join together to drown out the George Will version of ignorance.

    Leckey Harrison
    Whidbey CareNet
    FF/EMT with South Whidbey Fire/EMS
    Certified Level I TRE Provider

  5. breath_electric says:

    It’s so sad that while sexual assault is such a prevalent and pressing issue, it’s not one that we (as a society) ever really seem to talk about in public in a basic, general way. For instance, very rarely do young people ever really get any advice about what exactly constitutes sexual assault, consent, rape, etc. until after it happens. At least, I certainly don’t remember that being a part of my sex ed. class in high school/jr. high. Having experienced a situation quite similar to the one Wills cherry-picked, I personally did not feel that I had been assaulted, but I don’t think that my individual feelings about one such case should constitute the way we deal with assault in general. People end up making up their own minds about what these things mean; which, in an aggressor’s case (but also perhaps in the case school administrators and reactionary journalists), means they end up deciding on everyone else’s behalf. While I certainly don’t want to apologize for or excuse an individuals choices that lead to a case of sexual assault, as described in the article, It seems clear to me that society’s general tiptoeing around the issue plays a part in how often assault occurs. Case in point, I doubt that the young man in question considered his behavior assault; he was probably able to rationalize in his own mind the young woman’s lack of defensive action as some sort of ‘consent’. This wouldn’t at all justify his actions, but I think this possibility certainly highlights the need for us to have the conversation rationally, out loud, in public. Thank you for adding a little more reason to that conversation.

  6. Kim Phillips says:

    George Will is right about one thing: schools did bring on scrutiny and regulation by their unwillingness to address the problem of sexual assault on campus. Since conservatives never think there should be any protections for anyone unless it’s themselves, I wonder if he’d have such a cavalier attitude if his own daughter were raped.

  7. mike hickey says:

    Dear Lacy, thanks for this eloquent missive. Personally, I take solace in the fact that all these ancient pagans will hopefully die soon and fade away into obscurity. Hopefully they will be replaced with real human being whose hearts are still beating.

  8. Shann Ray says:

    courageous, necessary, beautiful work Lacy. The masculine often enacts the emptiness and rage that live below the surface of immaturity and lack of character. Atonement is a long and worthy road. Hoping to be with the other women and men who find maturity and more authentic character toward healing and respect.

  9. Brava, Lacy. Well said. Maybe there will be a day, someday, when we won’t have to make these kinds of cases for our rights and personhood. But until then, your words are carrying the day. I especially appreciated:

    “I want to make one thing abundantly clear to men like George F. Will: any time a woman is forced or coerced into having sex, she doesn’t become a victim by reporting it. She doesn’t gain anything: no protection, no “special privileges,” no “coveted status.” In fact, she often puts herself at tremendous risk: maybe the man will seek some kind of violent retribution, maybe she’ll be shunned or ostracized, or asked degrading questions by a college administrator. Maybe a so-called journalist will gaslight her in the pages of The Washington Post, where he will judge her, will put her experience in scare quotes.”

    Required reading.

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