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.”

Once I started my career as a photojournalist, the assaults continued. A few months after the rabbi incident, I was beaten over the head with a telephone receiver in a Peshawar, Pakistan, hotel; later that summer, I was stabbed in the arm in Switzerland by heroin dealers who’d broken into my hotel room when they decided they didn’t like me snooping around with my Leica; a month after that, I was informed by a government official in Zimbabwe that he would grant me safe passage into an area of conflict only if I gave him a blow job. I declined his offer and made my way into the jungle alone.

I was 23 years old.

 

IT WAS THUS with more than passing interest that in February I read the finger-wagging reactions in the press to the assault on Lara Logan in Tahrir Square. That she was attacked twice—first in Egypt, then in the press—was sickening but not surprising. For just as sexual assault is an abuse of power, so too is our apparently favorite national pastime: judging women.

Think I’m exaggerating? Plug the phrase raped by the press into Google and see how many hits you get (almost 600,000, by my count). Of course, there are two important distinctions between sexual and verbal assaults: the former violates the body and soul, the latter just the soul; and while men are almost always the perpetrators of sexual assault, both women and men can, and do, carry out the verbal kind.

In Logan’s case, journalist Nir Rosen, a man, mocked her on Twitter: “It’s always wrong, that’s obvious, but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention she’ll get.” (He later apologized and resigned his fellowship at New York University.) Conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel wrote, “No one told her to go there. She knew the risks . . . Hope you’re enjoying the revolution, Lara!” LA Weekly writer Simone Wilson, in a post titled “Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and Warzone ‘It Girl,’ Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration,” felt compelled to point out Logan’s “shocking good looks and ballsy knack for pushing her way to the heart of the action” before getting to the assault itself. On the New York Daily News website, anonymous commenters of unknown genders left droppings such as this one (later removed by the paper’s editors): “Don’t mean to be insensitive, but does she not know this is how a mob operates??? bringing a pretty female into a lawless mob is like showing up at Charlie Sheen’s carrying a ton of coke, thinking he won’t snort it all!” On approvalpolls.com, visitors were asked to answer yes or no to the question “Is Lara Logan to blame for her -sexual assault?” And in an opinion piece in the Toronto Sun (titled “Women with Young Kids Shouldn’t Be in War Zones”), Peter Worthington called Logan’s decision to cover the story “a form of self-indulgence and abdication of a higher responsibility to family.”

Logan would tell her story two and a half months later on 60 Minutes in May. But back in February, immediately after the offensive press reactions appeared, I was urged by a number of colleagues and acquaintances who knew of my history to speak out on TV, on the radio, in any forum where people would listen. I told them all, including the editor-in-chief of this magazine, that I couldn’t face it.

I didn’t want to be seen as profiting from another woman’s pain. Plus, I’d already broken the code of silence in my 2000 memoir, Shutterbabe, and had been duly and swiftly punished for it. I didn’t want to relive the trauma, either of the assaults themselves or of my thrashing in the press for publicly disclosing and wrestling with them. In fact, in some ways it was the press attack that in retrospect cut the deepest and left the most lasting scars. I was terrified that if I defended Lara Logan, I would expose myself to further invective.

But as the months passed, my silence began to feel cowardly, indefensible. I’ve had half my lifetime to contemplate my own assaults, a full decade to digest the fallout from having disclosed them. So here we are.

I ask only for your mercy.

 

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.

“Not if you press charges, you won’t,” she said. She painted a grim picture of court dates and lawyers, of putting my career plans on hold until the end of a trial that in all likelihood I would lose.

I took her advice and left for Paris at the end of September, without having pressed charges. A month later, I was molested by the rabbi, whose assault I did not report either, both for logistical reasons—as a freelancer, I could not afford to hire a lawyer or to stay in Israel indefinitely until a trial—and for fear that having allowed him into my room for an interview would be used against me in court. Plus, I didn’t want my photo agency back in Paris to think of me as any different, any less capable than my male colleagues. So once again I sucked it up and moved on.

 

TWENTY-THREE years—nearly a quarter century—have elapsed since the rabbi’s attack. Today I have a daughter who will be heading off to college in a few years. And yet society’s attitudes regarding women and sexual assault are remarkably unchanged. After the attack on Logan, Bill O’Reilly posed the following question: “Is the danger to women journalists in the Muslim world worth the risk?”

Dear Bill, I wanted to remind him. It has nothing to do with Muslims. Or journalism. To state the obvious: Because most men are physically stronger than most women, females will always be at a greater risk of rape, assault and battery. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in a war zone or walking down a well-lit street in a supposedly safe neighborhood. Our bodies can, at any time, in any place, while we’re doing any job, be violated.

But just as sexual violence can be found around every corner, so can opportunity, love, life! My two eldest are a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. We live in New York City, so they are often roaming the streets and subways on their own. Do I restrict my daughter’s movements because she’s a girl? No, never. Do I worry about her safety more than I worry about my son’s? Yes, always. This social inequity is a permanent condition we must unfortunately accept and learn to manage rather than use as an excuse to keep our daughters from strolling through Times Square or our female journalists from working in Tahrir Square.

But in the Lara Logan round of the endless game of Judge That Woman, I believe there’s something more insidious at play: namely, her role as the mother of small children. In his Toronto Sun Op-Ed, Peter Worthington wrote, “Fine and commendable for, say, the Calgary Herald’s Michelle Lang to cover the Canadians’ war in Afghanistan, where she was killed during the first few days she was there. But she was single and prepared to take her chances. Were she the mother of small children, plain and simple she should not have been there . . . A double standard, perhaps, with men, but that’s the way it is. Or should be.”

A double standard, indeed—and an infuriating one—but is this kind of sexist singling out of mothers surprising? Of course not. In the media, mothers are always judged for their choices, whether they’re journalists like Logan, politicians like Sarah Palin (who drew fire for accepting the vice presidential nomination only four and a half months after giving birth to a Down syndrome child) or even gifted performers like Tina Fey, who in her new essay collection, Bossypants, hilariously pinpoints the judgment disguised as concern in the question “How do you juggle it all?” She writes, “The topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield.”

And what of those mothers whose jobs take them to actual minefields? Continuing to cover wars after becoming a parent is a deeply personal decision for all journalists, but only the women who do so are either condemned or forced to account for their choices. When the Atlantic Monthly’s Michael Kelly was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq in 2003, commentary generally focused on the tragedy, not on any accusation that he was responsible for depriving his two young sons of their father. ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff, a father of four, suffered a traumatic, almost fatal brain injury as a result of an IED explosion in Iraq and was universally lionized upon his return. New York Times photographer João Silva, father of two, stepped on a mine in Afghanistan last October and lost both legs below the knees. Still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he told Terry Gross of NPR that his ordeal has been hard on his wife and children, but moments later he also told her he hopes to return to conflict photography, “once I get to the point that I can walk, I can run . . . if I feel that I can move quick enough . . . I would make decisions based on that.” Gross expressed surprise that he would do so, given that he now has two prosthetic legs and that he was almost killed, but not once did she ask if he felt it would be fair to his family. In Shutterbabe, I shared my own thoughts on this subject: “It is also my opinion—and a bizarrely unpopular one, at that—that, be they male or female, journalists with children should not cover wars. Then again, I also don’t think they should skydive or shoot heroin or drive without seatbelts.”

Yes, I still hold the same opinion today, but it’s only that: my opinion. I would never attempt to foist it on anyone else. Lara Logan, whose children are one and two years old, hinted at her own views in her 60 Minutes interview: “When I thought, I am going to die here, my next thought was, I can’t believe I just let them kill me . . . that I just gave in and gave up on my children so easily; how could you do that?” Asked how she felt when she saw her children again, she replied, “I felt like I had been given a second chance that I didn’t deserve. Because I did that to them . . . I came so close to leaving them, to abandoning them.” If anyone reading this can think of a male journalist who has so publicly and honestly examined how his professional choices have affected his ability to be a good father, drop me a line.

Whether Logan’s appearance on TV inspired sympathy or criticism, we’ll never know, since the killing of Osama bin Laden that night knocked her—and every other piece of news—out of the headlines. But besides being brave and honest about her children, Logan spoke out on another important point that night. Asked why she was telling her story, she said, “One thing that I am extremely proud of . . . is when my female colleagues stood up and said that I’d broken the silence on what all of us have experienced but never talk about . . . That women never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you don’t want someone to say, ‘Well, women shouldn’t be out there.’ ”

After I broke that silence myself in 2000, I was so traumatized by the public reaction that I retreated once again into silence. Inspired by Logan, I’m now trying to change that. Not bringing my attackers to trial two decades ago was the better choice for that particular juncture in my young life, and yet a part of me will always be ashamed of my inaction. Ditto for my public silence in the face of personal attacks in the press: What seemed right for my career and reputation felt morally corrupt, spineless. That’s the problem with the abuse of power of any kind, whether physical or verbal. It turns a strong woman weak. And its flashbacks last a lifetime.

Click here to read about Ashley Judd's outreach to improve the health and safety of women in Africa.

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First Published Thu, 2011-05-26 11:58

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