America’s Real Favorite Pastime? Judging Women

After the mob attack on Lara Logan, many commenters claimed she was partly to blame. Recalling her own experiences with sexual violence and public criticism, Deborah Copaken Kogan dissects the judgment game

by Deborah Copaken Kogan
deborah copaken cogan image
Photograph: Elinor Carucci

SHUTTERBABE, which I wrote while in my early thirties, was a public grappling with what it means to be a woman both in the world at large and in the world of international war coverage: how it feels to work in a man’s world while facing different types of dangers than my male colleagues do; to be the object of lust as well as one who lusts; to find meaning and balance in work and love; to metamorphose, over time, from a taker of risks into a person who tempers risk with a vow to stay alive long enough to see her children off to college.

Though my writing style was often praised, the book’s raw subject matter constituted a written invitation to a certain kind of critic. The female author of a review titled “Bang-Bang Girl” (double entendre no doubt intended) wrote, “For all the romantic overlay she gives her story, Kogan makes it clear that she screwed strategically,” implying that I slept my way into stories, which I never did.

Another female journalist, who interviewed me for a magazine feature, wrote, “I ask if she’s worried that her frankness will get her labeled a slut.” If you publish that word in a widely circulated glossy magazine, it will! I wanted to shout. Instead, I launched into a colorful rebuttal, of which she used just a few lines: “I don’t even like that word [slut]. How come there are no boy sluts?” One female writer whose work I usually admire praised the book, then felt compelled to review me, the person: “Other photojournalists, reporters, and documentary filmmakers—female and male—protect themselves, or at least avoid unduly threatening situations while on dangerous assignments. Kogan either couldn’t or wouldn’t . . .” The male author of a review titled “Battlefield Barbie” opined, “Anyone who professes to be as worldly about men as she does shouldn’t be so shocked to find out that men are often violent pigs.”

One of the more painful responses was penned by a female critic in the Women’s Review of Books, a feminist publication associated with Wellesley College, whose summary of the various crimes was followed by these blame-the-victim questions: “What’s going on here? Am I hopelessly out of touch? Has the world changed so much since my own college years (characterized by an occasional flasher in the subway and tender consensual relations with sensitive undergraduates)? And should I fear for my preteen daughter? Or, as Kogan herself wonders, could there possibly be something about herself that invites these abuses?”

It was this last question, the insinuation of blame cleverly reframed as if I were asking it of myself, that I found the most offensive. Though in the book I did reflect on whether or not I had invited these attacks, in the end I concluded that such a line of questioning was, a priori, indefensible. My experiences, I reasoned, resulted from a combination of bad luck and a genetic roll of the dice that made me short (five foot two), slight (112 pounds) and female: an easy target for men with a pathological need for control and a will to act on it.

The lies, innuendo and personal attacks in the press—all adding up to “She was asking for it”—reminded me of the words of warning spoken to me by a Harvard psychologist a decade earlier, the day after I was raped.

That morning, an hour before my college graduation, I made my way on crutches to University Health Services to report having been penetrated against my will by a fellow student the previous night. “I want to press charges,” I said, still shaking.

After asking me several pointed questions about my personal life, the psychologist on duty was blunt. “If you press charges,” she said, “the defense lawyers will drag your sexual history into a court of law. They will blame you for inviting the assault. It’s not fair, it’s not right, but for now it’s the way the world works. Hopefully, by the time your daughter is in college, things will be different.” She asked me about my postgraduation plans. I told her I was hoping to move to Paris to become a war photographer.

First Published May 26, 2011

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Vanessa 08.15.2011

Thank you to the author for writing this important piece and for her courage speaking out. I picked up my first issue of MORE today and after reading this, I went online and bought a subscription.

Liana Preble08.01.2011

Great article! Thank you for sharing....
Liana Preble

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