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We submitted a letter to the editor of the Press Republican after they printed a column by Gene Lyons titled, “Professors can’t be rape police”. In order for a letter to the editor to be printed, it must be under 300 words. Our letter was just over 700 words, so we edited it down (you can still read the full version over here). This is the version of our letter that went to print:
TO THE EDITOR: In “Professors can’t be rape police,” columnist Gene Lyons argued that colleges cannot properly investigate and prosecute sexual assaults on campus.
While I agree, I take issue with this quote: “Based upon the dubious claim that one in five college women is a victim of sexual assault — if people really believed that, even ‘highly-selective’ schools couldn’t keep their dorms filled.”
Dubious means “not to be relied upon; suspect.”
These “dubious” claims are from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control study; 5,000 students at over 100 colleges were asked, “in your lifetime have you been forced to submit to sexual intercourse against your will?” 20 percent of women and 4 percent of men replied “yes”.
Another quote: “Swarthmore — its 1,500-member student body filled with Honor Society grads —experienced a sharp upsurge in sexual-assault reports, from 11 in 2012 to 91 in 2013. It’s unlikely that student behavior changed so dramatically over one year. Clearly something else did.”
Lyons suggests the increase in reports isn’t related to actual occurrences of sexual assault. Survivors can experience intense trauma, shame, fear and anxiety. Repeatedly recounting the experience to press charges, letting others know that you’ve been raped and the possibility of regularly encountering your rapist after outing them (a common occurrence on campuses) can all be daunting tasks.
I argue that an increasingly strong support network for survivors and cultural shifts in attitudes toward sexual assault are responsible for the increased reports.
A U.S. Department of Justice survey reported an average of 237,868 sexual victims annually. Printing Lyons’s column validates his outright denial of how sexual assault occurs.
We also received this note from editor Lois Clermont:
You letter was still over the limit, so I cut the last graph. The reason is that Gene Lyons writes a syndicated column over which we have no control. It is his opinion entirely. Sometimes we agree with him; sometimes not.
He is an award-winning columnist and author, but that doesn’t mean he is always right. He is the liberal columnist that we use; the conservative columnist is Byron York, whose columns appear on Saturday.
I also took issue with some of Lyons’s conclusions in this column, but it is just his opinion. No one needs to agree.
His email is at the end each week in case you want to contact him.
Thank you for working with me through this.
I know that Lyons’ column is syndicated, and you have no control over the content, but you do have control over whether or not to print the column. It is not unprecedented for newspapers to decline an installment of a syndicated column, comic strip, or other articles. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, it transcends “liberal” and “conservative” politics, it isn’t really up for debate.
Pulitzer Price winner George Will’s syndicated column was recently discontinued from several papers after he wrote a similar piece that called out sexual assault as an alleged problem rather than a reality.
While we can debate how to respond to sexual assault, debating whether or not it is actually happening is an insult to all survivors.
Saying that you have “no control” over the column is a bit problematic to me, because as an editor you are a gatekeeper and you allow certain ideas to flow into the public consciousness and effect our culture. People hold news outlets to a high regard, and what they read in the paper will help to inform their perception of reality. When someone reads something like what Lyons’ wrote in this column and takes it to heart, it does more damage than good to our community. You are correct in saying that no one has to agree with Lyons, but it is equally true that the Press Republican does not need to give him a platform to spread harmful and outdated perceptions of rape in our culture.
- Matt Hall
To which Lois wrote:
I firmly believe in sharing viewpoints of all kinds, which is why I work so hard to get a good variety of columnists and why I welcome letters even from people whose views aren’t popular. It is all about stimulating community discussion…as this column obviously did.
And our conclusion:
I agree, hopefully the discussion goes beyond these emails and into the community.
Thanks again for staying in touch on this topic.
- Matt Hall
This leaves us to ask, will the discussion expand into the community? How do you feel about media coverage of sexual assault? How do you feel about George Lyons’ column? Do you think that views like the ones held by Lyons’ have a place our local media? There are plenty of other popular and unpopular views that are never represented by newspapers, so how do we decide which ones get a spotlight and which ones don’t? Let’s talk about this!
In response to their printing of Gene Lyons’ “Professors can’t be rape police” column:
To the editor,
I was appalled by Gene Lyons’ syndicated column that was printed in the Sunday, July 20th edition of the Press Republican, titled “Professors can’t be rape police”. In the column, he argues that the responsibility of proving instances of rape on college campuses and subsequently punishing rapists cannot fall solely on campuses and their staff. I agree with that point, and while I feel that colleges can always be doing more to prevent rape and to support survivors of sexual assault, they are definitely not equipped to properly investigate such cases on their own.
However, that is not the part of the column that I have a problem with. My issue with the article can be summed up in this one quote: “Based upon the dubious claim that one in five college women is a victim of sexual assault—if people really believed that, even ‘highly-selective’ schools couldn’t keep their dorms filled”. Just to clarify, the dictionary defines the word dubious as meaning “not to be relied upon; suspect”.
Another quote: “Meanwhile, Philadelphia magazine reports, little Swarthmore—its 1500-member student body filled with Honor Society grads—experienced a sharp upsurge in sexual assault reports, from 11 in 2012 to 91 in 2013. It’s unlikely that student behavior changed so dramatically over one year. Clearly something else did.” In his column, Lyons not only denies the amount of sexual assault happening in our country, but suggests that an increase in reports of sexual assault is the result of something other than actual occurrences of sexual assault. Lyons is clearly out of touch, and doesn’t seem to realize that there is a growing number of people in our country who are feeling empowered to speak out and stop allowing rape to be swept under the rug. It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward. There are immense amounts of trauma, shame, fear, and anxiety that one may experience. Overcoming that to speak about what happened, to recount the experience over and over while pressing charges, to let your community know that you have been raped, and to possibly have to face your rapist after outing them (something that happens all too often on college campuses), are all daunting tasks for many people. Thankfully, a cultural shift and network of support have been steadily developing, and I would argue that these progressive changes in our culture are responsible for an increase in the number of sexual assaults being reported, rather than this vague “something” that Lyons alludes to.
The “dubious” claims that Lyons is talking about are from a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in which 5,000 college students at over 100 colleges were asked the question, “in your lifetime have you been forced to submit to sexual intercourse against your will?”, and 20% of women said replied “yes”. Thus, one in five college women has been raped at some point in her lifetime. In that same study, 4% of men answered “yes” to that same question. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)–there is an average of 237,868 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year. And while reports of sexual assault have decreased by more than half since 1993, it doesn’t make our current statistics any less horrifying.
I know that Gene Lyons does not live in Plattsburgh, and that his views do not necessarily represent those of the Press Republican and its entire staff. However, somewhere down the line, someone read that column, and they deemed it worthy to print, thus giving validity to Lyons’ outright denial of sexual assault and how often it occurs in our country. I am asking that Lyons’ column be removed from further editions of the Press Republican. If the editors do not wish to remove the column, then I am asking for a full explanation of how and why they can support claims like the ones made by Lyons in this column. Even if the the column is removed, I would still ask that the editors explain their justification for printing something so ignorant. I await your response.
- Matt Hall
Site leader, Hollaback! Plattsburgh
Local band Thoughtcrime approached Hollaback! Plattsburgh about doing a fundraiser show, and it’s happening on Saturday, August 2nd! We’re raising money to print some educational materials, as well as some shirts that will feature some awesome designs by Shawna Armstrong! Spread the word! Click the flyer to see the Facebook event page and RSVP!
We’re teaming up with the Anti-Stigma Alliance to table at Mayor’s Cup on Saturday, June 12th.
We’ll be there from 10 am to 5 pm spreading the word about Hollaback! Plattsburgh, see you there!
Press Republican covered our recent Flash Fundraiser. Click the pic to head on over to their site to see a video and an article about the event!
By Teah Dowling, via The Burgh
Plattsburgh — A man approached a woman on the street, cupped her backside into the palm of his hand and said “give it to me, girl.”
Hollaback! Plattsburgh is a community organization committed to ending street harassment for people of all genders, ages and sexual orientations.