George Will’s Problem With Rape Statistics

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, best-selling author, television commentator and Newsweek essayist George F. Will addressed a crowd of about 300 in the Wolf Kuhn theatre of the Misciagna Family Center for Performing... Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, best-selling author, television commentator and Newsweek essayist George F. Will addressed a crowd of about 300 in the Wolf Kuhn theatre of the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts at Penn State Altoona.Will’s newspaper column appears twice weekly in about 500 newspapers in the United States and Europe. He provides a bi-monthly back-page essay for Newsweek magazine and has written a dozen books on baseball and politics. MORE LESS
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George Will continues with his assertion that it is mathematically impossible for 1 in 5 women to have been sexually assaulted while in college. He calls the statistics “insupportable” and when he replied to Senators Blumenthal, Feinstein, Baldwin, and Casey he chided them to temper their “rhetoric” about the “scourge of sexual assault.” But it’s not just the statistics that appear to bother Mr. Will as he also expresses concern about definitions:

“I think I take sexual assault more serious that you do. Which is why I worry about definitions of that category of crime that might, by their breadth, tend to trivialize it.”

According to the CDC sexual assault (or sexual violence) includes the following:

  • Rape
  • Unwanted touching
  • Acts that do not have physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator–for example, sexual harassment, threats, and peeping.

Now let’s focus on the 20 percent of women being sexually assaulted that Mr. Will finds preposterous. The statistic comes from the federally funded Campus Sexual Assault Study, a Web-based survey of over 5,000 women (and more than 1,000 men) attending one of two public universities. The data indicated that 19% of women had either been the victim of an attempted or a completed sexual assault while in college, hence 1 in 5 women. Of this cohort 11.9 percent reported they were raped (see the image below for the breakdown, it’s one of the saddest organizational charts I’ve seen in a while).

It would be fair to argue that this is one study with data from only two universities. Is public different from private? Large versus small? North versus South? etc. Digging a little deeper we find a broader sample with the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), which tells us that 1 in 5 women report a lifetime history of rape and 37.4 percent of these women report they were raped between the ages of 18 and 24 (college age). This translates into 7.5 percent of women recounting a rape between the ages of 18-24 versus 11.9 percent for the Campus Sexual Assault Survey. We don’t know if the data from the two studies are within the margin of error, if one suffers from under or over reporting, or if both are spot on and college compounds what is already an age-related risk. Even if it’s the lower 7.5 percent that is still scourge level.

READ: Gunter’s original response to George Will

What about the overall sexual assault statistics, the 1 in 5 that has Mr. Will flummoxed? The well-validated National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance indicates that 14.4 percent of high school girls experienced sexual dating violence in the previous 12 months (including kissing, touching, and forced intercourse) so that sadly doesn’t make the 1 in 5 during the four years of college sound out of spec at all. Anyone who has ever been a college aged women might actually wonder if the 20 percent sexual assault statistic is on the low side.

Sexual assault, including rape, is very hard to study. The data is retrospective, some women do not accept they were assaulted or raped for some time, some women might not be able to answer yes on a survey because that makes it real, and for others such a survey might trigger their post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Regardless, it is well-accepted in the medical community that rape is widely under reported (shame, fear, disbelief, shock, difficulty navigating the legal system among the reasons). What about reporting other forms of sexual assault? Most young women know exactly what is going to happen to the guy who puts his hand up her skirt or yells “Bitch” and spits in her face when she tries to push his hand away running the gauntlet to the bathroom at an over crowded party. Nothing, although if someone of authority is located there could very well be the bonus of being made to feel like it was her fault because of how she was dressed or to “give him a break” because he was drunk and otherwise a “good guy.” The way society treats women who report sexual assault does not, as Mr. Will opined, confer a coveted “victimhood” status.

What about talking about rape in the broader context of sexual assault, the idea that drawing attention to non-rape sexual assaults trivializes rape? The point is so ludicrous I am somewhat at a loss as how to respond. Just as talking about smoking induced asthma does not trivialize lung cancer deaths and talking about a robbery committed with a gun does not trivialize school shootings, talking about unwanted touching, stalking, and sexual coercion does not in any way diminish rape.

To imply there is a false epidemic of sexual assault while purporting to be concerned about sexual assault is the height of double speak. If we confined the discussion to the 7.5 to 11.9 percent of women who are raped between the ages of 18 to 24 we still have a “scourge of sexual assault,” so I don’t get the point of challenging the experiences of women who got away with only the revolting sour taste of an unwanted kiss or furtive glances over their shoulders for weeks after a party unless of course you don’t think that those experiences should be counted as sexual assault.

Believing that rape isn’t under reported, restricting the definition of sexual assault to rape, thinking that education about sexual assault in all its forms allows the “privilege” of “victimhood” to proliferate these are indeed the very kinds of ideas that trivialize violence against women.

This post was originally published at

Dr. Jen Gunter is an OB/GYN and a pain medicine physician. She authored the book, The Preemie Primer, a guide for parents of premature babies.

Photo: Flickr/Penn State

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  1. If you think I am gonna get in the middle of this, NO WAY. My momma didn’t raise no stupid children.

    George, you’re on your own, dude.

  2. That hole not deep enough yet, George?

  3. I thought there was supposed to be a memo out there to the rwnj’s to quit talking about rape? Did George not get one?

    Inquiring minds want to know…

  4. “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” –Mark Twain

  5. Avatar for maxie maxie says:

    What jumps out at me about this story is that Will called the statistics ‘preposterous’ without doing any research on his own. He relied on what all conservative white men seem to rely on for much of their opinions: the white man’s prerogative to take strong and loud opinions based on nothing more than gut instinct. The gut instinct that surely Iraq MUST have had something to do with 9/11, or, one of my favorite white conservative dude canards, “if we just stopped giving all that foreign aid we wouldn’t have a deficit”. The conservative white man believes as the superior being who was ordained by God himself to rule over the earth, he has a special genetic power to see truth without ever learning the actual facts of the matter.

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