Commentary Media

Here Are All the ‘Privileges’ I’ve Experienced as a Survivor of Sexual Assault

Lynn Beisner

George Will is right. Throughout my life, my status as "survivor" has afforded me any number of privileges. For instance, the surgery that I needed a couple of years ago to fix the long-term consequences of the assault on my body was truly a privilege—it gave me the status of being temporarily unemployable.

Content note: This article contains a graphic description of sexual assault.

Recently, the Washington Post published a column called “Colleges Become the Victims of Progressivism” by well-known conservative George Will. Based on the headline, it would be reasonable to expect that Will was going to counter progressive assertions that ballooning administrative costs have caused the price tag of college to go up astronomically or that education inflation has devalued undergraduate degrees.

But Will did not address anything truly related to higher education. Instead, he spent the entire column railing against efforts to curb rape on college campuses. He claims that such efforts make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges,” are “excruciating” for colleges and universities, and as a result “victims proliferate.”

Like most publications of some repute, the Washington Post does not typically print opinion that is based on clearly fanciful representations of facts. For example, I highly doubt that they would publish a piece in which George Will opined that all extraterrestrial aliens should be required to wear pink in public. Even though that would be nothing more than an opinion, it is based on facts that are not in evidence: that extraterrestrial aliens walk among us and wear clothing.

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If you take away the guise of opinion, what you have in Will’s opening lines are propaganda statements that are absolutely contrary to the facts. For Will’s “opinion” to be worthy of printing, the Post had to believe that there is some truth in the following statements:

    1. Women receive positive attention for being raped. Having a “coveted status that confers privilege” requires that someone else confer that status and those privileges. Someone must be giving the average survivor so much positive attention that we all want to have the label of survivor.
    2. Women want to be raped. After all, anything that is both “coveted” and “confers privilege” is something that women must be dying to experience.
    3. Rape is not the reason that rape “victims proliferate.” Will suggests that the reason we have high rape statistics on college is not because rapists rape—it’s because we have made being a rape victim something that is “coveted” and that “confers privileges.” In other words, the problem is not that rape happens. It is that progressives grant that women have the nerve to talk about it. And what will cure that pesky old rape problem is kicking those darn progressives out of university life.
    4. Dealing with rape is so “excruciating” for colleges and universities that the pain of victims pales in comparison. Therefore, we must alleviate the suffering of college administrations even if that encourages rape and inflicts more pain on survivors.

Let’s be very clear about what happened here: Under the the guise of giving space to one man’s opinion, the Washington Post has told men that women want to be raped, that women get positive attention for it, and that the real problem is that women talk about it.

The Washington Post has just given young men permission, if not an incentive, to rape.

Will tries to support his amoral opinion by offering two pieces of evidence. The first are data that he willfully misinterprets. It must be a willful misinterpretation since I am fairly sure I could get a chimpanzee to understand why there might be a difference between rapes reported to campus security and what is reported to social scientists. But let me put it in the most simplistic terms I can: Police do not always file reports on rapes reported to them. And many women are afraid to even tell the police what happened to them because they know how horribly our justice system will treat them. So they are more likely to tell the truth in anonymous surveys than to the police.

Will’s other piece of evidence is a story of campus rape. He pulls selective quotes from transcripts and extrapolates that one story is representative of all date rape on college campuses. The smoking gun for him are the following facts: that the woman had a prior relationship with her rapist, that the woman was there of her own free will, and that she had engaged in foreplay with the man in question.

Since Will seems to think that one story can make a case, let me offer another story of a young woman in college who went to the house of a man she had known her whole life. In fact, they had grown up together. She went to this man’s house of her own free will, engaged in foreplay, took off her own clothing, and even agreed to engage in sex.

That excludes her from the category of a “legitimate” rape victim in Will’s eyes, does it not? And if she talks about it or files a complaint, she should be ignored, right? After all, she must be just looking to get that “coveted status” and the privilege that comes with it.

So here is the story: When I was 19, I decided to have sex with a man I had known my whole life. I went to his house in my favorite outfit—jeans and a trendy sweater. Under it were my favorite matching baby blue bra and panties. We made out on his sofa, and I followed willingly when he led me to his room.

By the time we got to his bed, I was naked from the waist up. I remember being ashamed of the tiny pooch of my belly, worrying that he would find an extra inch of flesh unacceptable. I shucked my own panties and jeans before I climbed into bed.

You will have to forgive me if I cannot offer a complete narrative of what happened after I entered the bed. I know how guys who excuse rape, like George Will, feel about women who pass out during sex—that they deserve whatever happens. So I know that some will mock me when I freely admit that between pain, shock, and blood-loss I lost consciousness several times.

The man who sexually assaulted me did it with such force that he tore my vagina from the opening through the cervix. I gushed blood, which he later licked up as if he were a vampire. He continued to pound me after he had torn me, banging my intestines for what felt like hours and spreading bacteria throughout my peritoneal cavity.

I drove myself to a friend’s house, and she took me to the hospital. By the time that I got there, I was in critical condition. I coded twice before they could get me stabilized. I saw the white light and had a near-death experience. Surgery and blood transfusions saved my life.

You’d think that with that kind of an injury, I’d definitely experience the status and privilege that George Will claims sexual assault victims are afforded. Everyone would believe my story, and no one would dare say that a woman who had been so brutalized wanted it or had it coming. Right?

But the police would not even file a report or record my statement. In so many words, they explained to me that no reasonable jury could believe that taking off my panties wasn’t a tacit agreement to having my vagina ripped and my intestines pounded and the exterior of my colon bathed in semen. As a single woman, I had entered the home of a single man, so it did not matter how much of his bedroom was bathed in my blood, or that there was a trail of it out of his door and in my car. I had engaged in foreplay with him, so whatever followed, even if it killed me, was fair game.

I’m sure the police’s decision to dismiss me without taking a report kept the crime statistics for our city and the campus at a minimum. This, I’m sure they thought, was for the best—since so many people knew about it, there was the risk of the story being picked up by the press. And it is more important to keep the reputation of a growing college healthy than to affirm that it is wrong to nearly kill a woman using your penis.

The “status” of being survivor was so overwhelming that I could barely breathe in the weeks following the sexual assault. I became so popular that everyone in our community knew and had an opinion as to whether I was a deserving slut or not. It was so much fun when women I barely knew asked me who had taken off my panties and used the answer to judge me as a lying whore. And without the “privilege” of having my intestines screwed, I am sure that I would never have married my ex-boyfriend a scant four months later just so that I could leave the area.

George Will is right. Throughout my life, my status as survivor has afforded me any number of privileges. For example, I had the privilege of having preterm labor and miscarriages because the assault compromised my cervix. I had the privilege of having my babies by cesarean section. And the surgery that I needed a couple of years ago to fix the long-term consequences of the assault on my body was truly a privilege—it gave me the status of being temporarily unemployable.

Who wouldn’t get in line for that?

There was also the privilege of having my attack brought into a custody hearing as evidence that I couldn’t possibly be stable. You see, the worse the assault, the less capable the survivor is of being a sane and judicious person.

And it was so helpful when I reported that a fellow teacher’s assistant was publicly rating the hotness of students in his classes. I was fortunate enough to have people in power who knew my history, so I was privileged to be informed that my history precluded me from seeing that a would-be professor needed to be given a pass for his early attempts at sexual harassment.

I cannot tell you how many jobs I’ve gotten thanks to my sexual assault; when I’ve needed to explain why I dropped out of college the first time, everyone has applauded me and shoved me to the front of the hiring line.

In truth, the times that I’ve lied, I’ve reeked of shame so badly that I’ve been forced to learn to tell my story even when it really, really hurts. It is because of the privilege of shame and fear that I have not applied for jobs because I knew someone in the administration knew about the sexual assault.

Contrary to Will’s assertions, I have never encountered a trigger warning in a college classroom, but I’m sure they must be present in some. I’m sure it must be a horrible inconvenience for a professor who has to insert a boilerplate line into a syllabus, and it must be annoying to read such a warning if you, as a student, have no such triggers. Surely that pain and annoyance outweighs the risk of a PTSD relapse for students who have been assaulted.

After all, an environmentally based disease like PTSD could not possibly require any accommodations. We should just tell survivors of wars, murder attempts, and rape to suck it up like the people who have to bounce their wheelchairs up and down steps. Oh, many buildings have ramps and other accessible features now, you say? But surely we shouldn’t offer comparable accommodations to people with mental illnesses, especially those caused by violence. I’m sure veteran’s groups would agree.

For more than a decade, I have been working or studying on college campuses. And I can say that, as George Will asserts, sexual assault victims who report being victimized get all sorts of privileges. They get special tutors who sit with them during tests. Their papers are practically written for them, and they barely have to show up to class.

Wait, sorry, those are athletes I’m thinking of.

I remember one class where we were discussing an issue related to sexual assault, and a woman was so rattled by the discussion that she confessed to having been the victim of a recent sexual assault. Let me tell you how many people lined up to escort her to a counselor, to make sure the assault was reported to campus police.

Nobody. That’s how many people did that.

But there must have been a huge payoff in the status she was afforded. Who doesn’t want to be known as a “crazy bomb” that could go off at any second?

Then there was the case of the sexual predator who worked in my high school. I remember that incident well since I was the one who finally reported his crimes, even though they had been going on for more than a decade. People in that community practically held a parade in honor of the bravery that the survivors showed in coming forward. And I cannot tell you how much my status improved as the person who ratted.

In reality, I have been humiliated, blamed, and faced with death threats.

A few years ago, I received a rape and death threat against my daughter so gruesome and personal that I have felt obligated to write under a pseudonym since.

The truth is that George Will is lying. There is no privilege or status granted to those who have been sexually assaulted. We are counted as liars or trouble-makers. We become the objects of gossip, attacks, and other people’s projected shame.

I am someone who has born witnessed to and been a victim of the kind of a sexual assault that Will tacitly condones. And without an ounce of sarcasm, I can say that it has given me “a coveted status that confers privileges”—so long as the status you covet is that of advocate, and the privilege you long for is to help others.

I can scarcely imagine what my life would be if I had not been sexually assaulted. I’m sure that I would not have been someone who gives other women and men a safe space to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. I probably would not have held the hands of women while they tentatively tried to tell someone in authority what happened to them. And as a result, it is unlikely that I would have had the opportunity to truly see and appreciate the resiliency and strength of my fellow survivors.

Most of all, being a survivor has given me the status of a person who gives a damn, and it has conferred on me the privilege of being a person who cannot ignore her conscience. I cannot stand by idly while people like George Will tell America that our real problem is that we are trying to make a safe place for women to talk about sexual assault, when I know that the real problem is that people like George Will have created a place in which sexual assault can happen.

Will lied, and with those lies he gave his tacit permission for college-aged men to rape. For this gross breach in the most basic rules of journalism, he deserves to be fired from any and all media-related jobs. And I, for one, will judge the ethics of media outlets by how they respond to his “opinion.”

Commentary Race

Black Lives Matter Belongs in Canada, Despite What Responses to Its Pride Action Suggest

Katherine Cross

Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada's history or present ignores the struggles of Canadians of color, including those who are LGBTQ.

As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.

For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.

There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.

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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.

Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.

Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.

In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.

Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.

Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.

Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”

This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.

We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.

Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.

A 2015 Toronto Star special investigation found hundreds of Greater Toronto Area officers internally disciplined for “serious misconduct”—including the physical abuse of homeless people and committing domestic violence—remained on the force. In 2012, the same outlet documented the excessive rate at which Black and brown Torontonians were stopped and “carded.” The data is staggering: The number of stops of Black men actually exceeded the number of young Black men who live in certain policing districts. And according to the Star, despite making up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, Black Torontonians comprised at least 35 percent of those individuals shot to death by police since 1990. Between 2000 and 2006, they made up two-thirds.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.

Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.

One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.

It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.

If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.

Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.