Though his erudition is a reminder of the pre-internet era, a time when the ability to craft distinctive prose was a sought-after commodity in a columnist, George Will has never been on my list of favorites. His brand of conservatism is especially irksome in that it contains a heavy dose of elitism and snobbery. Will’s contempt for anti-intellectualism would be admirable were the insult not reserved for those who simply don’t agree with him.
This week, a Will column in The Washington Post is drawing a lot of attention, not only for the subject it tackles—sexual assaults on college campuses–but also for Will’s seeming lack of empathy for the victims. In case you missed it, the Obama administration has decided to make this issue a priority, assigning Vice President Joe Biden to pressure colleges and universities to do a better job of not only educating students about sexual assault, but also of punishing the aggressors while protecting the accusers.
Will’s column was smug, arch and mean-spirited—in other words, it was a George Will column. He insisted that women who say they have been raped assume a “coveted status” on campus, as nasty a remark as I imagine has ever made it past Will’s editors. But had Will backed off on the venomous prose, and focused more on the issue at hand, he may have gotten a wider, more thoughtful hearing.
Will’s main gripe is that in order to justify its sudden focus on campus rape, the Federal Government—the “nanny state”–adopts language that insulates it from charges that it is overreaching. In announcing the Federal campaign Biden used the word “epidemic” when referring to sexual assaults on campus. That’s a powerful word: We speak rightly of the AIDS epidemic and every winter we are urged to get a shot to head off another flu epidemic. But Will doesn’t think that what is happening in the nation’s dorm rooms and frat houses is an epidemic, and he may have a point.
Will, and others, call the government’s oft-cited statistic on the number of women sexually assaulted on campus “preposterous.” The Obama administration points to a 2006 study published by The Journal of American College Health whose conclusions were that 1 in 5 college women will be the victim of a sexual assault before they complete their undergraduate years. The study was conducted at two large state universities, one in the Midwest and one in the South. Its authors cautioned that their methodology—it was a Web-based survey—resulted in a lower response rate than would have been typical of a survey conducted face-to-face. But the 1-in-5 figure has stuck, because, says Will, “crucial and contradictory statistics are validated the usual way, by official repetition.”
There are approximately 8.3 million undergraduate women at any given time on U.S. college campuses. To take the study literally, one would have to accept that, of these women, nearly 1.7 million will be the victims of a campus sexual assault before graduation. Will is obviously not buying it and, frankly, I’m not either.
Politicians trying to pass legislation and governments attempting to implement policy choose statistics they feel will help them to advance their cause. Whether that cause is embraced or reviled by you, me or your neighbor is what politics is all about. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here though by suggesting that condemnation of rape transcends politics and is a rather universally-shared position. And that’s where Will tripped over himself, appearing to be less than sympathetic to women who are assaulted and who often feel that the price of bringing forth a rape allegation is more pain and humiliation.
The dilemma for journalists, including Will, and for the average citizen, is maintaining a healthy skepticism about numbers that are, in many cases, fundamentally unknowable, even when they are brandished in defense of a worthy cause. As a columnist, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is everything that George Will is not: Compassionate, generous of spirit and courageous. While Will pontificates from his Washington D.C. home, Kristof has traveled to 150 countries, and has devoted much of his career to crafting searing accounts of the systematic persecution of women and children around the world.
But, making Will’s point, Kristof has fallen victim to the unknowable statistic. In a February 27 column, Kristof wrote, “There’s a growing awareness that sex trafficking is one of the most serious human rights abuses around, with some 100,000 juveniles estimated to be trafficked into the sex trade in the United States each year.”
Wow, I thought, when I read that. That’s shocking: 100,000 child sex slaves in the U.S. It is an appalling number, but it is almost certainly very wrong. If you parse that statistic, even allowing for wiggle room, in any given year your local high school would be losing about a dozen girls to sex slavery. Even in this land where so much ugliness can lurk behind a façade of normalcy, 100,000 teenage sex slaves seems highly unlikely.
Still, Kristof has used the figure several times, as have CBS News, USA Today and CNN. In January, Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, told an interviewer, “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children [NCMEC] estimates that there are 100,000 youth under the age of 18 in the commercial sex trade in the U.S.” In Will’s formulation, this is “validation by official repetition.”
When I called NCMEC to ask about the 100,000 number, a spokesperson told me that, “We are no longer using that number.” Instead, the center says, “one in seven endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2013 were likely sex trafficking victims.” That’s quite a difference. The number of reported runaways–which is a knowable figure–is, according to the spokesperson, a confidential statistic.
The people who cite these numbers, like Kristof and the folks at NCMEC, are passionate about their work, which is a good thing, because we need folks who are willing to devote their lives to eradicating an evil. But getting back to Will’s complaint about campus sexual assaults, I’m not sure government should be in the business of serving up questionable statistics about a crime that we all agree happens too often, and that is largely the fault of college administrators looking the other way for too long.
One online comment about Will’s rape column made the very sound point that rape is never a good basis on which to argue about the broader role of government. The same could be said for challenging the statistics on child sex slavery: Any victims are too many. Will failed by trying too hard to score political points with his intemperate column—he can’t help being George Will. But The Web, with its insatiable appetite for facts and figures, no matter how thin, can have us believing that the world we live in is a far more dangerous place than it really is.
Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.