What’s Sex Got To Do With… George Will?

Last summer the renowned conservative columnist George Will published an article in the Washington Post about campus sexual assault that caused serious controversy: You can read it here:


This column is so loaded with concepts from class it almost seems like Will wrote it with us in mind. He discusses sexual assault statistics, “victim” vs. “survivor” rhetoric, and even trigger warnings, but the most interesting point is his treatment of the issue of consent in the example he gives from a Swarthmore sexual assault report.

Both as a term and as a practice, consent isn’t fully understood by scholars, policy makers, or the general public. However, there are a few established features of consent it seems as though Will might be fumbling. Consent has to be actively, explicitly negotiated. It can’t be assumed and both parties have to establish it. Consent to past sexual encounters doesn’t constitute consent to future sexual encounters. Also, consent can be withdrawn at any point during an encounter, and absence of resistance doesn’t imply consent.

Argumentatively, Will’s presentation of the Swarthmore example is odd. He introduces it as though it’s going to be a piece of evidence that opposes the notion of a campus rape epidemic. After the quote, though, he doesn’t say anything about how it does that argumentative work. The tone of the piece suggests he views it as evidence of the “this is so outrageous it speaks for itself” sort. It’s not clear that the anecdote supports Will’s case though. A man made sexual advances on a woman, she said no, he penetrated her anyways. How is that not sexual assault? If anything, I would use that story as evidence that speaks for itself trying to argue the position opposite Will’s.

Somewhere between his disdain for hookup culture and a vague insinuation that the girl somehow asked for it, Will seems to think this case is evidence for a “boy who cried wolf” reading of national sexual assault statistics. To me though, the whole article is a demonstration of the American intellectual establishment’s gross unfamiliarity with the sexual landscape to which it issues its pronouncements. Can you think of other examples where the theorists/critics making these arguments about sexual assault haven’t done their homework?

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