No sexual assaults here? Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg
No sexual assaults here? Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama's administration has made combating sexual assault on college campuses a priority. The move is predicated on a belief, supported by survey data, that campus sexual assault is a pervasive problem.

Several pundits, including Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post columnist George F. Will, aren't buying it.

Colleges are learning, Will wrote this week, "that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ('micro-aggressions,' often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."

A White House task force noted that although one in five female college students says she has been assaulted, only about 13 percent of rape survivors report attacks to police. Citing data from a single campus -- Ohio State University -- among the nation's more than 7,000 colleges and universities, Will concluded that the nearly one-in-five statistic is "preposterous" and that even a back-of-the-envelope estimate of 2.9 percent, based, again, on Ohio State, is "too high." Will is not alone in questioning the White House data on assaults. But even assuming the estimate is inflated, data based on survey reports of actual young women on actual college campuses seem likely to be more accurate than the guess of a pundit in Washington.

Will also objects to the Obama administration's "capacious" definition of sexual violence, taking issue with the inclusion of "nonconsensual touching" alongside forcible sexual penetration in a list of offenses. Like trigger warnings and microagressions, an aversion to nonconsensual touching apparently reflects a desire by "privileged" millennials to wallow in victimology.

If psychoanalyzing people we don't know is fair game, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Will himself might be a victim. Indeed, he appears to have succumbed to what in many college curriculums is known as the "just-world fallacy," by which one assumes that real-world consequences, including tragedy, are solely a product of just deserts.

In fairness to Will, we all do it. We prefer to believe we live in a fair world, one where bad things only happen to bad people who deserve them. When tragedy strikes someone, we reassure ourselves by thinking, "That could never happen to me, or anyone I care about." The colloquial term for this magical thinking is "blame the victim."

Sexual assault isn't about Obama or trigger warnings or millennials. The sooner we accept that it happens to innocent people, the sooner we can stop accusing victims of causing their own pain and the sooner we can stop underqualified college administrators from treating sexual assault like some kind of campus hijinx. That's not to say that there are no false accusations or muddled, often alcohol-fueled encounters in which the truth is far from clear. But sexual assaults happen. We first have to acknowledge that before we can start deterring, and prosecuting, campus rapists, with all the due process they deserve, whether or not they are star football players. That may not seem like progress to some pundits. But I suspect college women are willing to suffer their disapproval.

To contact the writer of this article: Maria LaMagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.