An Epidemic of George

George WillThe fur has been flying the last couple of weeks over a  recent piece by the conservative pundit George Will. Given that Will’s subject is “the supposed campus epidemic of rape,” it may be impossible to discuss his column purely on the basis of language. But I’m game to try.

Will’s word and punctuation choices yield several different sorts of fodder. One might begin, for instance, with his appositive to rape, “a.k.a. ‘sexual assault,’” a term he keeps in quotes throughout his piece, as if there is something inherently problematic about putting the words sexual and assault together in a phrase, much as one might think it problematic to marry benign to dictatorship. The word rape itself, of course, is more or less defined these days as sexual assault (“to force [someone] to have sex with you by using violence or the threat of violence,” according to Merriam-Webster Online). Its archaic definition had to do with the seizure of property by violent means; the step from that sort of general rape to sexual rape, when the property in question is a female who by right belongs to someone else (her father, her betrothed, her husband) is not a large one. But for all his longing to return to the “autonomy, resources, prestige, and comity” of campuses of bygone days, Will does not seem to be arguing for a definition of rape that includes, for instance, a group of gleeful Sabine women whose menfolk have had their lawful property snatched.Seven_brides_seven_brothers

So let’s move on. More interesting to me are Will’s usages of the terms survivor and victim. For many years, now, rape crisis centers and other organizations working with people who have lived through situations of sexual or domestic violence have scrupulously avoided using victim. As one blogger put it, “‘Victim’ implies passivity, acceptance of one’s circumstances, and a casualty. The word ‘victim’ robs individuals of their agency and their ability to fight back. ‘Survivor’ displays the individual’s resistance, ability to take action in the face of immense obstacles, and the day-to-day work of surviving despite immense trauma. ‘Survivor’ implies ingenuity, resourcefulness, and inner strength.”

This turn away from victim and toward survivor parallels a rise in the use of terms like victimization, which has seen a twelvefold increase, according to a Google N-gram, since 1960; and victimhood, which seems to have emerged around 1990 and risen steadily in popularity since. In other words, as we have begun referring to victims not simply as persons who have been set upon by other persons, but as persons who have been accorded or have claimed a certain status, rape victims have become almost universally reluctant to employ the term. As a substitute, survivor seems a bit inadequate. I survive an earthquake, but I am the victim of a mugging, because in the latter case, there is a mugger. Now, I may also have to cope with the trauma pursuant to that mugging, and in that sense I may be a survivor as well. But the term itself, while it accords strength and agency to its referent, implies no perpetrator, and in the crime of rape, there is a rapist.

But curiously, for George Will, survivor—conceived as a workaround, to avoid accusations of victimhood and so forth—is itself “the language of prejudgment.” (The Chronicle article to which his column links does not, in fact, use the term survivor, opting instead for alleged victim and alleged perpetrator, so I can’t say what Will’s reference is.) Moreover, its use does nothing to head off Will’s victim-peppered claim, which is that “when [universities] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate. … [A]ttempts to create victim-free campuses—by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations—brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state.”(N.B. Mr. Will struggles here with subject-verb agreement. Lingua Franca readers, help him out.)

victimHere, in a nutshell, is the language dilemma. Rape is a crime. It has a perpetrator and a victim. Like a burglary or mugging victim, the rape victim is such precisely because whatever agency or power she possessed was inadequate to overcome the action that was perpetrated. At the same time, the language we employ for the women (and men) who go through these experiences is the language of strength, of agency, of fortitude. This distinction does not mean that those trying to sort out the consequences of unwanted sexual encounters are trying to have it both ways—to lay claim to some sort of all-powerful victimhood. It does mean we need to be alert to those moments where one term or the other, victim or survivor, may fall short or find itself susceptible—dare it I say it?—to being ravaged by a hostile force.

Return to Top