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George Will reignites myths of campus rape

My colleague George Will has become the subject of widespread outrage for a column published online that seems undergirded by a pair of deeply troubling assumptions.

First, he says that “when (colleges and universities) make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” Second, Will suggests that the Obama administration’s initiative on campus sexual assault is an attempt to “excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture,” arguing that young men will be railroaded to confirm young women’s sense that they are victims.

It saddens me that Will would think so poorly not just of American institutions of higher learning, but of young women, who he seems to see as simultaneously precocious and irresponsible. His column, though, is a useful example of beliefs about sexual assault that persist despite evidence to contradict them. And it is an opportunity to examine why some of those beliefs are so powerful and persistent.

It is not clear what Will believes to be the benefits that would make being a sexual assault survivor a “coveted status.”

Certainly rape and sexual harassment survivors have fought long battles to make their voices and experiences count for more in policy debates.

The right to be able to speak about your experience and have your testimony be received respectfully seems like a rather meager reward to claim for an experience that involves physical violation and pain, immense social stigma and psychological damage.

The same is true for any other accommodations, like the right to withdraw for a semester or to take exams late, that colleges and universities might extend to students who report being sexually assaulted.

If Will is correct that being a survivor is “a coveted status,” students might at a minimum be pleased with the disciplinary processes their schools have established to adjudicate sexual assault charges. Michelle Goldberg’s cover story in the Nation suggests a very different dynamic, one that survivors’ advocates say denies them real justice, and that students’ rights advocates say fails to meet the standards of a judicial process.

It might be enough to enumerate the oddity of Will’s assumption about the benefits of being raped. But because Will scolds the Obama administration for repeating statistics about campus sexual assaults that do not seem to add up, it is worth noting that his idea of a “coveted status” has an implication that is not borne out by data.

If being a survivor is truly so valuable, then wouldn’t we have an epidemic of students making false reports of rape or attempt to transmute sexual encounters that they regret into rape charges?

We do not. And the idea of such an epidemic of false charges is not supported by research. Most studies that balance the perspectives of survivors and law enforcement suggest that there is a false reporting rate of between 2 percent and 8 percent.

So why does the idea of the false report persist?

Daniel Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollar Professor of Law at Yale Law School, who has written extensively on the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning,” that the way we weigh evidence is influenced by strong goals, needs and worldviews, studied the cultural norms that affected views of acquaintance and date rape cases. He found that attachment to traditional gender roles played a significant role in driving skepticism that survivors actually meant it when they said no to sex.

In particular, women who are highly invested in traditional gender norms tend to lean toward defendants’ accounts because of the idea that “saying ‘no’ but meaning ‘yes’ is conceived of by those who subscribe to gender norms as a strategy some women use to evade the stigma these norms visit on women who engage in casual sex,” Kahan wrote.

When discussing sexual assault, this kind of “cultural cognition,” or assessment of the facts in accordance with the ideas that make up your worldview, makes a certain sort of tragic sense.

Distasteful as Will’s conclusions are, I suppose that, of two terrible options, it might be better to believe that young women have what Fox News recently termed “hateful little minds” than to believe that young men are raping young women in large numbers and that colleges are acting in such a way to keep sexual predators free.

Will is not alone in finding discussion of sexual assault on college campuses disturbing – he at least acknowledges that the rate of attacks is “too high.”

The current attempts to remedy campus sexual assault crises may be satisfactory to no one.

But as colleges, universities, the Obama administration and the rest of us proceed with a conversation about how to make improvements, we might all do well to make the well-being of young people, rather than our own pre-existing worldviews, a priority.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for the Washington Post.