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

IN THE FALL of 1988, when I was a 22-year-old photojournalist on my first assignment overseas, I was sexually assaulted in my hotel room.

I’d just spent my first week in Jerusalem covering the “bang-bang”—that’s journalist-speak for armed conflict—which in this case involved Palestinian kids throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, who’d respond by firing off rubber bullets. I wanted to dig deeper into the story, so when a colleague told me about a group of ultra-orthodox Jews who supported Arafat and opposed the existence of a Jewish state, I was intrigued. I placed a call to their leader, a black-hatted, white-bearded abbi, and asked him if he would agree to be photographed and interviewed.

Because of his strict religious beliefs, the rabbi explained, he could not be seen conversing with a woman in public, but he suggested I interview him in my hotel room. A Jew myself, albeit a secular one, I thought I understood his concerns, and we agreed on a day and time. The rabbi arrived promptly, and I shot a few portraits of him. Then I turned on my tape recorder and opened my reporter’s notebook. “So,” I said, my pen hovering in midair, but before I could ask the first question, the rabbi inquired as to how he might stop the machine, in case he needed to speak off the record.

“Oh, you just hit that button right there,” I said. After these words, the tape goes blank, marking the moment the rabbi pressed STOP and pushed me onto the bed, forcing his sandpaper tongue down my throat.

Because he was old and slight of build, I was able to remove his bony hands from my breasts and extricate myself without too much of a struggle. In fact, so fueled was I with indignation and rage, I pushed him out the door and nearly shoved him down the flight of stairs just outside my room—would have shoved him down had not a group of shocked bystanders, who heard me shouting obscenities, intervened.

This was the first of several times I was assaulted on the job. It was not, however, my first experience with assault or rape. Because the catalog of prior incidents, all of which occurred in a two-year period while I was still in college, is both long and relevant, I’ll just list them here clinically, in chronological order:

1986: Attempted gang bang by two fellow students with whom I made a documentary film in college.

1986: Victim of a burglary by a drunken, homeless man who broke into and entered my dorm room, where I was alone typing a Shakespeare paper. He threatened to rape me; I lied and said I’d seen him from my window and had already contacted the police. He left but was caught two hours later, shoplifting from Urban Outfitters. A trial ensued; he did not show up.

1987: Molested by a luggage salesman while I was trying to buy a suitcase.

1987: Attacked and threatened with rape by three drunken revelers in Cambridge during the Head of the Charles regatta. I beat one of them until his eye bled, using the only weapon I had: a plastic-encased VHS copy of A Clockwork Orange, which I’d just finished renting at a video store for my one-on-one, self-created seminar on women and violence.

1988: Raped in my own bed by an acquaintance who had offered to drive me home from a party—I was on crutches—the night before my college graduation.

These were the specifically sexual crimes that predated my professional life, a list that does not include two muggings at gunpoint or a crackhead’s knockout blow to my skull with his combat boot, all of which led to my senior thesis in college: a photographic assault on any man who dared to proposition me in public, whether with a “Hey, babe” or a “Wanna fuck?” I titled the thesis “Shooting Back.”

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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