I am offended by everything about the attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt and the tone of much of the subsequent coverage and conversation about it.
The attack itself is horrendous enough. Logan was in Tahrir Square on Feb. 11 with her crew –including security – to cover the crowd’s reaction to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. She was separated from her crew by a mob of 200 and then beaten and sexually assaulted. CBS says she was saved when Egyptian women and soldiers intervened in the attack.
We should all be offended to our very core as human beings that an attack like this could occur. But what had me awake thinking about this much of the night is the reaction to this news, and what it says about how we continue to view women and rape.
My friend Jacqui Banaszynski posted a link on Facebook last night to a blog post by Mary Elizabeth Williams on Salon, calling out some of the more egregious coverage of Logan’s attack – coverage that had as it theme “pretty girl + dangerous place = she had it coming.’’
I saw the same thing echoed in reader comments all over the web last night, often couched in cluck-clucks of sympathy at what Logan suffered but “she should have known better.’’
So I sat down at 5 a.m. after a relatively sleepless night spent thinking about this to parse what offends me most. There’s a lot to be offended by, but I isolated two conversational themes. One offends me as a journalist, and one offends me as a woman and a survivor of rape.
I want to talk a little about those two themes and what they tell me about how far we still have to go in understanding rape and sexual assault. And then I want to talk about the little ray of light I see in the discussion around what happened to Lara Logan.
As a woman who has practiced journalism my entire adult life, I am offended by how quickly the conversation about this attack defaulted to the “girl reporter’’ theme. As in, girl reporters shouldn’t be in dangerous places, where mobs might get out of control. They shouldn’t be in war zones, where they might get taken prisoner. They shouldn’t cover cop stories in dangerous city neighborhoods where they are out after dark.
They shouldn’t cover those stories or be in those places because they might just get themselves raped.
This idea – that our gender and the potential for a specific kind of violence and harassment based on that gender – should keep women journalists away from some of the most important stories we can cover makes me wonder how far we really have come in this profession. In my despair, I sometimes fear the answer is not very far at all from the days of women’s pages.
The fact that we are women, that we can be subject to types of violence that most men will never know, makes it that much more important for us to bear witness to the revolutions and wars, to the urban crime zones that are disproportionately home to some of our country’s most vulnerable women. To remove us from those situations removes the understanding that we can bring to those stories – and it makes the violence and fear of violence faced by women who have no choice about being in those places even more voiceless and faceless.
The other theme says less about how we view women journalists and much, much more about how we as a society still view the crimes of rape and sexual assault.
In the dialogue about the attack on Logan I saw the twin themes that keep us from having a productive conversation about a crime that will affect 1 in 6 American women in their lifetimes. I saw horror that Logan had been “shamed’’ by CBS’ disclosure of what happened to her. And I saw the blame-the-victim mentality I pointed to earlier – because of her looks and her actions, she somehow invited this kind of violence. In the words of one commenter on the New York Times story:
“The attack? Of course it was wrong. It was also entirely predictable. You put a woman (and an especially attractive one such as Ms. Logan) into a frenzied and overwhelmingly male crowd, what, in the name of common sense, can you expect?”
Yes, Logan is a beautiful woman. And yes, the situation she was in was a dangerous one – for any journalist. Ask the male journalists who were beaten and chased and hit with rocks.
But the idea that underlies this kind of thinking is that rape is about sex and physical attraction. It isn’t. It is about aggression and violence and humiliation and control. And it happens every day to women and girls in this country – including those of us who aren’t as pretty as Logan, those of use who don’t dress provocatively, those of us who live quiet suburban lives, those of us who are still children.
That’s why the Pollyanna in me hopes that if some small shred of good can come from what happened to Lara Logan, it is that she and her employer stood up and named the crime against her – and they did not frame it in terms of shame.
Eight years ago, when I disclosed in a newspaper column about coverage of rape and sexual assault that I had been a victim myself, I was overwhelmed with the women who approached me to whisper, “Me too.’’ It happened with colleagues throughout the newspaper. It happened in letters and in phone calls and when women pulled me aside at social gatherings. Almost always, those women grabbed my hand, their eyes filled with tears, and said “It happened to me, too.’’
Those people were overwhelmed that the newspaper’s editor had recognized their stories as being stories worth understanding and telling. So here’s my other little Pollyannish hope: As we move into a digital age when women don’t have to climb the ladder at a media corporation in order to influence coverage of topics like rape, we’ll see richer conversations in our communities about it. And I hope that the transparency that digital and social media can provide in its best expression can help us call out the impulse to blame the victim in favor of a more nuanced dialogue about how rape affects us all.
There’s reason, I think, to be hopeful about that. I started my journey through this story last night angry at the ugliness and lack of understanding that I saw online and in social media. But I’ve quickly concluded how one-sided that view is. The same tools and communities that were enabling the spread of the tired old stereotypes were also offering opportunities to those who want to challenge them.
Because as quickly as the ugly comments and blame-the-victim blogs popped up in the last 24 hours, there were other writers and thinkers there to chime right in to counter it. Mary Elizabeth Williams did that on Salon. NPR did that by pushing back on comments that strayed into victim blaming.
And best of all, the readers who commented did their own fair share of pushing back. From the same New York Times comment thread that gave us the “what do you expect’’ comment cited above, came a comment that pulled the conversation right back on point. I’ll let this comment be the last word:
“I’ve always admired Lara Logan’s bravery. Never more so than right now, for allowing the information to be released about this horrific crime. I wish her continued strength and courage as she recovers from the assault. And feel certain that by making her experience known, she will help protect her fellow journalists from such future horrors.”