Conservative old white men don’t have the best track record when it comes to discussing sexual assault in a sensitive and intelligent manner. In the US, there’s Republican congressman and former Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who once referred to ‘honest rape’; Republican state representative Richard Rivard complained that “some girls, they rape so easy”; Republican Gubernatorial candidate, who famously stated that “if [rape] is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it; and who can forget the Republican congressman and former Senate candidate Todd Akin advising that, where pregnancy and rape are concerned, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”? Yes Todd, but only if she’s a duck.
Now we can add one more to the list of men who really shouldn’t be given a platform to share opinions on things they clearly know little about. Just over a week ago, Pulitzer prize winning journalist and conservative commentator George F. Will wrote a column for the Washington Post in which he lamented the ‘progressivism’ that American college campuses have been embracing, particularly in regards to the “supposed campus epidemic of rape”. Such ill thought out capitulation to a leftist liberal agenda has only resulted in one thing, Will writes: “That when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” As Jessica Valenti wrote in response, “Rape victims get called a lot of things [but] the last word I ever expected to hear to describe a rape victim is ‘privileged’.”
To suggest that victimhood of sexual assault delivers a ‘coveted status’ to anyone not only shows a huge disregard for the severity of that crime, it also betrays a latent sympathy for the perpetrators of it. You don’t have to stroll too far into the seedy alleyways of the internet to find people who believe women routinely file false rape accusations to enact revenge on men for either scorning them or just existing, and arguments from a respected journalist like Will lend legitimacy to those half baked theories. To the cries of ‘vengeful females!’ and ‘regretful sluts!’ that already echo across society whenever a typical sexual assault occurs will now come hoots calling for survivors to ‘check their privilege!’ while scoffing at their ‘coveted club membership!’
Shortly after Will’s piece was published, the feminist writer and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki began tweeting under the hashtag of #survivorprivilege. On Twitter, she wrote, “Where’s my survivor privilege? Was expelled & have $10,000s of private student loans to attend school that didn’t care I was raped.”
Wanjuki isn’t the only survivor of sexual assault who feels let down by the system and further traumatised by the judgments made against them. And Will isn’t the only person who thinks that “victimhood” (to employ the scare quotes he places around sexual assault) comes with its own exclusive set of perks, one of which is seemingly the right to make ‘bad decisions’ and then later call it rape.
Back in February, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by James Taranto in which he referred to alcohol related sexual assaults on campus as “drunken students colliding” and fretted about the “disruption” caused to young men’s lives when sexual assault charges are brought against them. Like Will, Taranto’s views were angrily dismissed by people for whom ‘boys with promising futures will be boys with promising futures’ actually isn’t a defence against rape. But they were also parrotted by people who believe in the forgivable naughtiness of impish young men while chastising ‘provocative’ young women for failing to protect themselves against their well documented urges.
Indeed, the rights of sexual assault survivors are actually not held in very high regard by a significant portion of the public no matter what Will and Taranto might think. Survivor privilege isn’t actually something that exists in any way shape or form. Instead, survivors are often subjected to rank victim blaming, a lax response from law enforcement and the judgment and hostility of communities who cannot understand that the vast majority of rapists are not the shadowy monsters we imagine them to be, but the brothers, fathers, partners, friends and colleagues whom we love.
And what about all the men who insist that any discussion around sexual assault be prefaced with the ‘not all men’ disclaimer that has become so tediously popular lately? Consider, for example, the former boyfriend of Pamela Anderson. When Tyrone Anderson heard that the actress and philanthrophist had revealed details of a group of boys raping her while she was at high school, was his first response was to contact her to offer her support? No, it was to contact the media and announce that his ‘high school sweetheart’ - whom he admitted to having physically abused at different points in their relationship - had a “moral responsibility” to reveal the names of her rapists because if she didn’t “some people might point the finger at me”.
There is no such thing as survivor privilege, but it’s clear that we still live in a rape culture that suffers from an abundance of ignorance and male entitlement. Will and the coterie of similarly offensive men who share his predilection for ignoring those survivors forever impacted by sexual violence might like to tell themselves that shining a light on these things will only encourage false claimants to try to ‘join the club’ - but as flash activism like #survivorprivilege (and new media projects like Project Unbreakable and Surviving In Numbers) demonstrate, the only thing that continues to proliferate at alarming rates in a rape culture is misconceptions, blatant untruths and the pompous waffling of people who don’t know what they’re talking about.