A College Rape Survivor Responds To George Will's “Coveted Status” Remarks

This post contains extensive discussion of the traumatic stress experienced by many survivors of sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

George Will

Washington Post columnist George Will recently asserted that the 1 in 5 women who experience sexual assault in college has a “coveted status”:

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.

This tasteless rhetoric wholly reflects conservative media's standard messaging on sexual assault survivors, which has only increased in absurdity since the White House in January created a task force to combat the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. As one of the millions of women who have experienced assault firsthand, Will's statement sent chills down my spine and ignited a desire to raise my voice in the public sphere along with all the other women who refuse to sit still while sexual violence is downplayed.

I won't be going into detail about my rape and multiple instances of sexual assault throughout my life. It's vital to discuss how rhetoric like Will's has been used for years to silence those of us who weren't allowed to choose all of our sexual partners -- and the severity of the consequences of the widespread assault that right-wing media are mocking.

According to a White House report, nearly 22 million women and 1.6 million men have been raped. To put it another way: every 2 minutes (probably less time than it will take for you to read this post) an American is sexually assaulted. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) states that two-thirds of rapes were committed by people that the victim knew, and 97% of rapists won't ever see the inside of a jail cell (increasing the chance that they'll do it again).  

But according to conservative media figures, these experiences are fraudulent and over-hyped “victim hoaxes.” They claim that even speaking about how many women are assaulted is a “war on men.” We all remember Todd Akin's repulsive “legitimate rape” comments, and are acutely aware of how many times we've been informed that we brought sexual assault upon ourselves -- by our behavior, our dress, or the situations we put ourselves in. Media and political figures' consistent rejection of the reality of sexual violence highlights the importance of countering this denial and these lies with every resource that we can muster.

The deep ramifications of sexual assault would disturb anyone who has sympathy for those who are involuntarily forced to undergo mental or physical pain. Because of trauma, many rape survivors can be left feeling unable to handle the normal challenges of everyday life, due to fear, anxiety, and depression. If certain symptoms last long enough, it's called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I can speak to this not just because I have PTSD, but because I've been a patient in a trauma unit for a total of almost two months, where every day I heard the stories of the other patients, a vast majority of whom were women that had undergone either short or long-term sexual abuse.  

When people think of PTSD, usually they see it in relation to the military. But PTSD can be created in a number of other situations, often including a person being forced to endure abuse because they are physically or emotionally restrained, or because they're not old enough to change their living situation. Regardless, all people with PTSD have one thing in common: a “fight, flight or freeze” response to situations that catch them off-guard or remind them of prior abuse. Many factors can trigger this response, be it loud noises, bright lights, or even hearing language that is similar to what their abuser used. Some survivors can't stand being in a room with a door that's left open, or they see things on TV that cause flashbacks where they go back to a time and place that they never wanted to see again. Some people won't set foot in a shower because just being in that environment brings back a flood of memories, and often those with PTSD can't sleep well because the nightmares won't end.

The effects of PTSD and response to triggers vary from person to person. For many, a blanket of depression interferes with being able to go to work, socialize with friends, or even leave the house. It can be difficult for trauma survivors to remain calm in a crowded and noisy room that can quickly become incredibly overwhelming. Many people remain in a constant state of guilt, apologizing for everything, regardless of if they actually did anything wrong. And some simply shut down. They disassociate from reality, and fall into a state that can be likened to an out-of-body experience. And of course, intentional self-harm by those with PTSD is commonplace, because it makes them feel something when they can't feel anything else, or because they genuinely believe that they deserve that pain. It can act as a “pressure-valve” when tensions are high, and for some, it's how they communicate when they can't cry out, or perhaps they did cry out, but nobody listened.

These are the realities that many sexual assault survivors experience. And while we can take medication or go to therapy, our experiences and memories will never leave most of us. Some people overcome this, and grow stronger as a result. But others lose complete hope, blocking out all memories so they can't remember things that occur outside of a day or even a few hours, damning themselves to a life of solitude, or even taking their own lives.

I have some words for George Will and others who argue that sexual assault survivors “make victimhood a coveted status”: Just stop. We've heard language like yours our whole lives that downplays or discounts our pain, either from ourselves, or close family members and friends that are supposed to love and support us. Your language enforces the prisons that we build for ourselves, locked in a cage of guilt, depression, anxiety and self-loathing. But as more and more survivors come forward because we realize how many other people share their pain and refuse to let it overpower us, we're learning that your voice means nothing against the strength we have amassed after undergoing such horrific experiences. Your refusal to accept or acknowledge the reality of sexual assault doesn't make our experiences any less real.

And to the women who have experienced sexual assault: Stay strong. Your pain is real and valid, and you're certainly not alone. If you're currently going through physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, tell someone you can trust. And if one person doesn't believe you or dismisses you (which can very likely happen), don't stop raising your voice. You never deserved any of this pain. It was created by someone who doesn't recognize how valuable and beautiful you are. Or maybe they do, but it threatens them for one reason or another to the extent that they'll try to disarm you in any way possible.

These media figures have a lot to gain from downplaying your experiences: money, politics, power. But as so many different people have fought back against the privileged and powerful oppressors before, we must stand together as survivors and use everything we can to overcome the injustice, in hopes that every person is given a fair chance to enjoy peaceful and happy lives, in full control of their own bodies.   

Lisa Reed is the Social Media Manager at Media Matters For America.