The debut of a new category of post at this site – the Untimely Post, usually begun in the heat of some ongoing controversy, withheld until memories have mostly faded and tempers mostly cooled – occurs here in a somewhat contradictory form, since George Will has recently been declared “Misinformer of the Year” by discourse watchdog Media Matters, though how exactly George Will’s controversial comments on a supposed “culture of victimhood,” with which Media Matters begins, qualify as “misinformation” is unclear, since the main informational content of an opinion, as opposed to its basis, is simply that an individual happens to possess it. In conveying that fact about himself, Will was, it seems to me, accurately informing his readers.
Will’s June 6 column was treated, and as we see is still being treated, as an attempt to minimize sexual assault, but, when in the column’s most controversial lines Will refers to a “coveted” “victim status,” he is not referring specifically, as his critics alleged and still allege, to sexual assault, but to a general category of so-called “microaggressions.” The subject of rape does appear in the column prominently, but in relation to the difficulties that college administrators face when they adopt the “progressive” approach to policy, law, and morality that is Will’s focus in this column, as more generally in his writing for many years. He does grant first position in his argument to an incident involving unwanted sexual intercourse, said to have occurred in student housing at Swarthmore College, as narrated by the victim-accuser in lurid detail. Yet the only choice other than to look away from the picture is to examine it, and the reader of his column or of this post proceeds in the face of a clear “trigger warning.”
Will presents the incident and its aftermath as follows:
Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.” Herewith, a Philadelphia magazine report about Swarthmore College, where in 2013 a student “was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months”:
“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.’”
Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped.
Will’s critics take the position that the incident obviously qualifies as rape or as what should be considered or, not necessarily the same thing, termed rape. Will does not directly state his own view on that question, but does not need to do so: If a given act is something other than obviously rape, it cannot be rape or assault in the traditional concept as Will wishes to preserve it.
Somewhat excruciatingly, if familiarly, a question evoking incidents painful even to contemplate, much less to undergo, turns into an abstract if not abstruse exercise in semantics. Yet this torturous interaction of the brutally real and the intellectually remote is unavoidable in the search for justice, since that search is also a matter inexorably of definition at the limits of experience, in relation to narratives of real events.
The first association or connotation of the word “rape” is visible in its shared root with the word “rapid.” Despite the best efforts of those seeking a new definition, the utterance of the word “rape” may still tend to connote a sudden attack. Even the more generalized term “sexual assault” refers us if subtly to a “leap” – via “saltus.” The word “rape” also refers to seizure, eventually to “plunder” as in the literary term “rapine”: “Rape” in the old sense seems to imply destructive dispossession, the value of the lost “good” to be derived from the value of sexual exclusivity to an existing or prospective mate – thus the difficulty in prosecuting or under the old moral regime even of conceiving of the rape of a woman by her husband (or in a somewhat parallel manner of a prostitute or “slut”). Along the same lines, the injury of rape would be treated as neither exclusively nor in many cultures even primarily suffered by the immediate victim, but by the family or clan as an enterprise. Cultures and socio-economic systems vary too widely to make generalization easy, but this loss was for an extended period expressed in Anglo-American culture, for example, with the archaic idea of “ruination” of virtue.
In the Swarthmore sexual assault narrative – at least as reported – there is at most only a ghost or echo, an affectless afterthought, of a violent act, hardly witnessed even by its theoretical victim. The Swarthmore woman has come forward, and has asserted that her story as rendered in Philadelphia magazine left out key details of the violence of the assault, and Will might therefore be faulted for undue credulity regarding a journalistic record of a purported crime, but the felt need to amend the story tends to support his underlying point, which was that the narrative as first related, and as initially received by his critics, described something different from rape as still widely understood. In that initial version of the story, the narrator herself diminishes the wrong done to her, providing her alleged attacker with various forms of mitigation: We are told that the woman had been “hooking up for three months” with the man. The woman expresses apparent uncertainty about an alteration of their relationship under a possible new agreement “just to be friends.” She further explains that she was not except under a broad definition “assaulted.” Rather than being, as it were, leapt upon, she of her own volition climbed into bed with the young man. When he made an apparently second set of sexual advances, she “just kind of laid there,” gave into a feeling of being “just tired,” then “let him finish,” and, finally, “went to sleep.”
When, six weeks later, she reported the incident as a rape, she appeared to be asking others to attach a much higher value to the harm – the pain, injury, loss, or dispossession – than she herself had ever done except in the act of reporting it. In other words, whether or not the victim’s eventual estimation of the wrong done to her is the one we would prefer her to have reached at the time, and for others to respect from now on, she herself apparently remained unsure of the wrong even in her own mind. In her telling it made barely any impression on her, and by her own minimizing testimony she puts herself somewhat in the position of a homeowner charging burglary while admitting her house was empty of valuables – or so a jury in declining to convict, police in declining to arrest, a district attorney in declining to prosecute, and friends, acquaintances, the public, administrators, and finally a conservative pundit in refusing to take her truly seriously as a victim, or as a victim of a serious crime under law and custom, might determine. It is perhaps indicative that, even while taking the narrator’s side against Will’s “offense,” Ordinary Times guest author “zic,” a self-identified rape “survivor,” compares the crime or alleged crime to a theft of “beer money.” Zic’s point is that, whatever else we might say about the Swarthmore incident, it is undeniably a crime, just as such a theft would still be a theft, but some will find the notion of “petty rape” (something like “micro-rape”) obnoxious, and few to no observers will assert that the Swarthmore man deserves the same treatment as the people George Will considers really rapists.
The Swarthmore woman or perhaps her supporters seem to expect the world to sympathize without hesitation and to the utmost, though not with her feelings as she describes or neglects to describe them, but rather with how we think she or someone in her position ought to feel, or might come to feel after properly monitored self-study. We are left to wonder if Swarthmore rape or progressive-feminist rape is what the conservative columnist still thinks of as rape, but with physical pain or trauma and all social and economic harms subtracted. The harm seems to be a mainly if not entirely abstract harm whose character may be difficult to explain: a kind of symbol inscribed in mind and memory mimetically, a harm of having once been reduced to one’s physical or “natural” being, helplessly vulnerable in one’s physical person. The harm at first seems to consist solely in an affront to the victim’s dignity, to an idea of self in relation to society and particular social relations – a subversion on the level of a social-political or ethical concept or ideal whose existence and authenticity are to be presumed absolute and irreducible. The typically female victim is forced to see herself as deprived of this ideal, as physically and therefore actually inferior. The perpetrator of Swarthmore rape forces his victim to know herself as imprisoned in objectivity, to experience her embodiment as her negation. Her future ability to form satisfying personal and specifically sexual relationships may further be said to be impaired, so her freedom has been constrained, specifically in the sense that her command over the consumption of her personal sexual capital, according to the libertine’s promise a source of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, relating according to the behaviorist to a mostly vestigial but powerfully felt instinctive need, has been compromised.
We may hesitate before any further attempts to characterize what this re-conception does or does not retain of the older idea, since any such investigation undertaken without the utmost care will appear to constitute victim-shaming, minimization of crime, and re-infliction of injury. The same charge will be made especially against anyone, regardless of care or credentials, who suggests that a sincere interest in reducing incidents of the general type would require some re-valorization of exclusivity and a removal of sexual activity from the realm of things no more significant than a good night’s sleep or beer money. The specific conservative claim remains, however, that this de-valuation precedes and observably conditions the crime.
An American conservative attitude toward the nature of crime, as committed by individuals against individuals, and as naming specific acts – not “rape is rape” and “no is no,” but “only real rape is rape” and “only a real no is no” – may prevent conservatives from saying what they really mean: that in fact they agree about the existence of a rape culture, but disagree as to who the real perpetrators have been and are. Will comes very close to breaking this taboo, to saying that the real culture of rape is the one that produces a drowsily passive shrug rather than measures of self-protection commensurate to imputed harms. The accusation is obvious as a secondary implication of the title of his column, “Colleges become the victims of progressivism.” Under a continuing metaphorical attenuation, this accusation could itself be treated, or in fact is treated, as yet another version of the crime, with each accusation and counter-accusation yet another assault compounding and aggravating prior offenses leading further and further back – eventually all the way to the Garden of Eden and Leda and the Swan as versions of the same story.
Thus warned or perhaps enticed, we might consider these two images of work by Michelangelo for proscription at any university campus:
These last references may be taken as further reinforcing Will’s point, but I do not intend them that way, though I do wonder if illustrating this post with images representing these stories, subjects of religious, erotic, and religious-erotic art for thousands of years, would now count as provocative if put before a larger audience. The needed impossible critique, of being-in-the-world weighing down on all our bodies but especially women’s bodies like an indifferent animal god, the birth of tragedy and all our woe, would unfold as the reductio ad absurdum of trigger warnings, a warning demanding to be read, against itself – the ultimate untimely and unwanted, perversely correct post.