Opinion

How rape became a partisan issue

It's no coincidence that conservatives were the first to express skepticism about Rolling Stone's UVA gang rape story

When I was a student in college, a comment in the campus newspaper offended me.

A fellow student, who I knew to be a bright and well-meaning young man, said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "I'm proud as a progressive to stand against rape."

I interpreted him to mean that being against rape was a progressive cause — and one that non-progressives oppose. He lived in a co-ed house dedicated to "peace and justice" where, in the spirit of communal living, they all shared one voicemail inbox.

I left him a message. "Being against rape is not a left-right issue or a partisan issue," I protested. "It is the position of all decent people!" Several of his progressive housemates, male and female, contacted me to agree.

Is rape now a partisan issue?

It would appear so. Hundreds reportedly plan to protest a Michigan State University commencement address by the conservative columnist George Will. Why? Will wrote a column questioning some claims about the frequency of sexual assault on college campuses and averring that when colleges "make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."

Will was dubbed a rape apologist and a campaign was initiated to get newspapers to drop his widely syndicated column.

George Will wasn't the first conservative to find himself so described.

In 2011, a Republican bill prohibiting taxpayer funding of abortion listed "forcible rape" as an exception. This was seen as implying there was some other kind, an absurdity that the comedian Whoopi Goldberg highlighted by noting the distinction between "rape" and "rape rape."

A year later, Todd Akin suggested such exceptions were really unnecessary in cases of "legitimate rape." He cost Republicans what had been a winnable Senate seat in Missouri and they've been fighting the "war on women" ever since.

The right's fraught relationship with the issue has surfaced again, thanks to a now-ubiquitous Rolling Stone story about an alleged rape at a UVA fraternity house, which turned out to be at best poorly reported and at worst a fabrication. The early skeptics whose scrutiny unraveled the piece were mostly conservatives and libertarians.

Not all of them, as National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke noted. "Thus far we have seen excellent, disinterested reporting on the case from Slate, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among others," he wrote.

But the question Cooke sought to answer in that post — "Why are conservatives so invested in debunking the Rolling Stone story?" — didn't come from nowhere.

What is it about rape and the right? From prattling about "legitimate rape" to outing the woman making the allegations in the Rolling Stone story (and apparently getting it wrong), there are plenty examples of conservatives behaving badly on this question.

But college campuses are also adopting extremely loose evidentiary standards for rape and other forms of sexual assault that seem likely to ensnare innocent people, even if the overwhelming majority of properly adjudicated rape claims are true.

Now some commentators are coming dangerously close to arguing that we should abandon the presumption of innocence off-campus, where the authorities have the power not just to expel but to imprison.

At issue isn't disbelief of women in general or rape survivors in particular. It's understanding that the seriousness of a crime — and rape, with its violation of bodily integrity is perhaps the most serious crime short of murder — is separate from determining guilt or innocence.

We also know from our history that some methods for making those determinations are more susceptible to error and abuse than others.

The temptation to throw out the red tape is understandable. As horrible as rape is, it is also an extremely difficult crime to prove. The window in which physical evidence exists is relatively short. There are often no witnesses. Important questions turn on intention and "he said, she said."

When you take into account other psychological factors and practical considerations that make rape victims hesitate to come forward at all, there is little wonder rape is underreported.

Imagine watching your rapist go free. Or maybe even become America's dad.

It's enough to make one view this as a zero-sum conflict in which innocent men or raped women must necessarily lose.

But not enough to give up hard-fought constitutional protections — which shouldn't be a partisan issue either.

More From...

Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III
Read All
A catalyst for gun control — or firearm ownership?
Police.
Talking Points

A catalyst for gun control — or firearm ownership?

Neither side of the gun debate will budge. Now what?
Flags.
Talking Points

Neither side of the gun debate will budge. Now what?

Who should decide religious doctrine, Twitter or the church?
Nancy Pelosi.
Talking Points

Who should decide religious doctrine, Twitter or the church?

A reckoning is coming for blue-checked progressives
A donkey.
Talking Points

A reckoning is coming for blue-checked progressives

Recommended

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wins 4th term
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel
Congrats

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wins 4th term

Is Meta's decision to bring back Trump dangerous or overdue?
Donald Trump's Facebook page.
Picture of Harold MaassHarold Maass

Is Meta's decision to bring back Trump dangerous or overdue?

8 modest proposals to prevent gun violence
The White House.
Briefing

8 modest proposals to prevent gun violence

What does the GOP want from debt ceiling negotiations?
the Republican elephant
Briefing

What does the GOP want from debt ceiling negotiations?

Most Popular

The big debate about alcohol
Alcohol.
In depth

The big debate about alcohol

Former U.S. generals explain how U.S. and German tanks can help Ukraine
Leopard 2 battle tanks
Many tanks

Former U.S. generals explain how U.S. and German tanks can help Ukraine

Britney Spears 'annoyed' after fans call police to conduct wellness check
Britney Spears
leave britney alone!

Britney Spears 'annoyed' after fans call police to conduct wellness check