Dirty Words

Lacy M. Johnson

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.