About my column on sex abuse

Broad Street Review under siege: Lessons from a controversial column

Scene from Cara Blouin's 'Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You': Persuasion vs. intimidation.
Scene from Cara Blouin's 'Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You': Persuasion vs. intimidation.

Three weeks ago in this space I posted a column suggesting that, in a world in which the governor of California, the prime minister of Italy, the head of the International Monetary Fund as well as U.S. presidents from Kennedy to Johnson to Clinton have revealed themselves as sexual predators, individual women would be well advised to take sensible precautions in their dealings with men. I wrote that column in response to a BSR essay by the Philadelphia family therapist SaraKay Smullens that detailed several egregious examples of sexual abuse of her clients and other women, and encouraged women to break the code of silence about their victimization as the CBS News reporter Lara Logan had done.

This sort of exchange is precisely what Broad Street Review is all about: the use of continuing provocative dialogue as a means of educating myself and, by extension, my readers. And indeed my column provoked several dozen thoughtful letters pointing out fallacies in my logic. (See Letters.)

But it also set off a vituperative firestorm in other publications and on several Internet social networks; a barrage of angry messages denouncing me as a "rape apologist"; an organized e-mail campaign demanding my dismissal; my banishment by two Philadelphia theater companies; and even the performance in Philadelphia of a short play titled Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You.

For the past five-plus years BSR has functioned as an idiosyncratic, experimental Internet forum where thinking adults can engage ideas that they might not be able to discuss elsewhere. Like any new concept, Broad Street Review mystifies many people and offends others. To those whose first taste of our site was my last column, let me try to respond to your concerns.

What was I thinking?

To readers who sincerely wondered about my column's purpose: I was merely performing my customary BSR role as editor: responding to one of my contributors in the hope of provoking further dialogue. In this case I raised a point that I felt had been overlooked in previous pieces we posted about sex abuse: that it's dangerously naÓ¯ve to place one's entire faith in the law, in moral codes or in the way things ought to be.

To be sure, in this instance my tone was probably too provocative. But I would still argue that it's irresponsible to contend, as the anti-date rape activist Robin Warshaw once put it to me, that "even if a woman is lying naked on a bed, "'No' means "'No'." That rhetoric may contain value when directed toward men. None of the responses I've received has persuaded me that it's wise advice for women.

But let's assume that my column was misguided, wrongheaded, mean-spirited— in a word, bad. The antidote for "bad" ideas is better ideas. It's a matter of joining the conversation in the hope of changing the speaker's views through persuasion, not intimidation. This is precisely the way many readers responded to my column.

There are indeed such things as genuinely bad and/or erroneous ideas. But they too merit expression in a marketplace of ideas, because only in this way can they be challenged or refuted.

Nevertheless, thousands of people—most of them previously unfamiliar with BSR— reacted by demanding that I be silenced or fired, or worse, for my bad thinking. In effect their response was: "We don't want to join your conversation, and we don't want anyone else to join it either."

I recognize that the concept of fighting bad ideas with good ideas is difficult to grasp. But we are not at the end of history here. As recently as 1697 an 18-year-old Scottish divinity student named Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh for ridiculing the Bible. Most people now recognize that such a response didn't do anybody any good. Civilization continues to devise better means of responding to ideas that disturb us. That never-ending quest is part of what BSR is all about.

Lara Logan's ordeal

To the CBS News journalist Lara Logan: You put your life and your body on the line to report one of the major news stories of our time: the astonishing demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square that toppled the seemingly entrenched Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. To bring this story to the world, you paid a horrific price: You were gang-raped by a mob of men who also violated you with their hands and fists. Afterward, you refused to suffer in silence but instead spoke up forcefully about what had happened to you. For this you deserve only sympathy and admiration.

In referring to your ordeal, my column mentioned my dismay upon Googling your name and finding that your most prominent photo portrayed you more as a sex symbol than as a journalist. This is probably less a reflection on you than on the TV news business, which has hopelessly blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment.

I never said that you wore sexy outfits in Tahrir Square, nor did I suggest that you invited that rape. But some readers jumped to that conclusion, and in retrospect I should have written more clearly and framed the analogy more intelligently. I apologize to you and any other women who have been victims for any pain I've added.

A global petition

To the Women's Media Center: You orchestrated a worldwide petition that has so far generated more than 8,800 identical e-mail messages to me and some of BSR's directors, for my dismissal. You're entitled to your opinion of me, of course, and I'm flattered by the importance that you attach to mine. Your cause and mine— public enlightenment— are really the same; we just go about it a bit differently. But since you've invested neither time nor energy nor money in BSR, I wonder by what logic you presume to dictate our personnel decisions.

Lightning rod

To those readers who advocated my castration, dismemberment or death: This controversy isn't about me; it's about stimulating a discussion about male sex abuse and female responses to it. I didn't ask to become a lightning rod for this debate, but I'm happy to serve as such; after all, this is my job. Besides, I'm free to accept or reject your opinions, just as you are free to do the same with mine.

Five key lessons

To all readers of BSR: Since I constantly talk about using BSR as a tool to educate myself, you may well ask: What have I learned from this experience? A great deal. A few highlights:

— While it may be wise for women to take precautions in their dealings with men, as I suggested, women need to hear that advice from other women, not from a man like me.

— Many women (and men) send out signals that they'd like to have sex. It doesn't follow that they'd like to be raped.

— To paraphrase what the great Federal Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand said about judges, editors can be damned fools just like everybody else.

— After millions of years, the traditional mating dance between the genders— in which the female of any given species instinctively attracts a male partner through a combination of appearance, smell, sounds and body language— is now being challenged by some women who insist that they dress and behave only to please themselves, without regard to men. Of course, if you dress to honestly express who you really are, you'll have a better chance of attracting the partner who loves you for yourself. The implications for the future of our species strike me as enormous and, consequently, worthy of discussion among women and men alike.

— Even 40 years after the birth of the women's liberation movement (in which I was peripherally involved), we have barely begun to bridge the gulf between the different ways that men and women perceive things. If our ultimate goal is mutual understanding, men and women must share their perceptions with each other openly and honestly, instead of shouting each other down.

To that end, I invite anyone so inclined to join our continuing conversation. If you're not so inclined, I urge you to engage in similar dialogues elsewhere. And of course we at BSR will continue to forcefully defend everyone's right (including ours) to express and examine whatever ideas we choose.♦

To read responses, click here.
To read a follow-up apology by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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