Dan Rottenberg, editor of online arts mag Broad Street Review (and way back, editor of this publication when it was Welcomat) wrote an editor’s letter last week that’s drawing criticism from national media watchdog outlets like Women’s Media Center—and deservedly so.
A photograph of Lara Logan, the CBS and 60 Minutes news correspondent who was sexually assaulted by a mob while covering the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square in February, illustrates his column. Snapped in 2008 at the Gracie Allen awards, Logan’s smiling bright, wearing a pale gown that sets off her tan cleavage.
Rottenberg’s column was a response to an earlier Broad Street Review essay by contributor SaraKay Smullens, who also used the rape of Lara Logan as a jumping-off point to discuss sexual assault in the U.S. But Rottenberg had a different twist.
“Smullens argues that women need to speak up and speak out when they’re victimized, as Lara Logan has done, and of course she is right,” writes Rottenberg. “But having stumbled across a CBS publicity photo for Lara Logan, I can’t [help] thinking that women also need to take sensible precautions before they’re victimized.”
Next to Logan’s photo, Rottenberg wrote, “Earth to liberated women: When you display legs, thighs or cleavage, some liberated men will see it as a sign that you feel good about yourself and your sexuality. But most men will see it as a sign that you want to get laid.”
It’s clear that in context, Rottenberg actually meant “get raped,” not “get laid.” But it’s easy to conflate sex and rape when you’re blaming women for getting raped based partially on how they are dressed—even in another country while not on the job.
Rottenberg’s not a stupid guy. He’s written nine books and hundreds of articles. In defense of another piece, he once wrote, “I’m just trying to provoke dialogue, which I believe is the path to truth.”
Perhaps that’s what he’s going for here. But victim-blaming sexual-assault victims based on their clothing isn’t exactly a revolutionary conversation. That dialogue already happens all too often—and still happens in courtrooms.
The majority of my female friends have been molested, sexually assaulted or raped at some point in their lives. In most cases, no one paid for these crimes even when the attacker was identified—in part because the culture of victim-blaming trumpeted by Rottenberg enables it to happen without consequence.
Rottenberg’s perspectives reflect the bias that’s been keeping rapists on the streets since time memorial: What were you wearing? Why were you there alone? Well, what did you expect to happen?
Next, Rottenberg pushes his argument even further (back in time).
The subtitle of his column is ‘What should women do?’ and Rottenberg isn’t done answering his own question.
“Don’t trust your male friends. Don’t go to a man’s home at night unless you’re prepared to have sex with him. Don’t disrobe in front of a male masseur. If you take a job as a masseuse, don’t be shocked if your male customers think you’re a prostitute.”
Don’t trust any male friend? Ever? Or just ones a certain age or race or marital status? What about older married white guys, like Rottenberg?
“Conquering an unwilling sex partner is about as much drama as a man can find without shooting a gun,” opines Rottenberg.
In less than 800 words, Rottenberg normalizes the desire to rape; attributes that desire to rape to all men; rates rape just under shooting a gun on the drama scale; and saddles women and girls with the responsibility of avoiding being attacked.
The whole piece is such a mess that it reads less like a letter from an editor and more like a cry for help. If Rottenberg believes what he’s saying—and it’s not just some tacky misguided attempt at being provocative—someone please handcuff the man before he goes and “conquers an unwilling sex partner.”
Rottenberg relays what happens to uppity “liberated women” through a parable, a cautionary tale of two single female neighbors.
“Ann spent 18 years on our block without any problem. The other, whom I’ll call Sarah, was the victim of four burglaries, one attempted rape and one molestation of her young daughter, all within a year of her arrival.”
The lies that enable sexual assault to be practically a rite of passage while growing up—1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are molested—are already everywhere, so deeply rooted in our culture you have to dig deep to yank them out. Staying silent has never helped a situation of sexual assault, ever. We say no. We say there is no better time to learn more and write more reality checks.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom