Male sex abuse and female naiveté

What should women do?

A journalist, or a sex symbol?
A journalist, or a sex symbol?

Editor's note: The column below, I have concluded, is misinformed and damaging as to many of its key points. I continue to post it here as a perpetual reminder of my own fallibility, and also because it generated a valuable debate. For more details, see my subsequent apology as well as links below to responses that followed.

SaraKay Smullens, an experienced and insightful Philadelphia family therapist, recently posted an essay in BSR maintaining that the alleged sexual abuses of prominent men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvio Berlusconi are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Smullens recounted a litany of incidents involving clients and acquaintances that are dismaying at least and revolting at worst:

A wife whose husband routinely urinates and defecates on her. A helpless injured woman who was fondled lasciviously by ambulance attendants en route to the hospital. A woman who fell asleep during a massage, awakening to find the masseur fondling her breasts and masturbating. A masseuse who had to clean up her male client's ejaculate. A college student who was raped by a male friend who invited her into his room to continue their conversation.

Perhaps most outrageous of all is the recent ordeal of the CBS News reporter Lara Logan: While covering the political demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, she was gang-raped by a mob of men who also violated her with their hands and fists.

Logan's cleavage

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. But having stumbled across a CBS publicity photo for Lara Logan (above), I can't help thinking that women also need to take sensible precautions before they're victimized.

For example: 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. And if you want to be taken seriously as a journalist, don't pose for pictures that emphasize your cleavage.

Yes, yes, I know: Each of us wears many personas. A woman journalist like Lara Logan should be able to celebrate herself as both a journalist and a woman, even a sexy woman. But the operative word in that sentence— should— is the sticky point.

From rape to war

Many of the tragedies mentioned above spring from what I see as a naive faith in the power of the modern sexual revolution. Women today are technically free to do all sorts of things that were forbidden to their grandmothers, which is all well and good. But in practice, rape and the notion of sexual conquest persist for the same reason that warfare persists: because the human animal— especially the male animal— craves drama as much as food, shelter and clothing. Conquering an unwilling sex partner is about as much drama as a man can find without shooting a gun— and, of course, guns haven't disappeared either.

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.

Two women on my block

Back in the 1980s two single women lived at opposite ends of my block in Center City. One, whom I'll call 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 difference in their stories seemed obvious to me. Ann kept a low profile, dressed conservatively, installed a burglar alarm, locked her sturdy front door at all times and kept a gun her front hallway. Sarah, on the other hand, dressed like a flower child (she wasn't a druggie, but she looked like one), had no burglar alarm and only the flimsiest of front doors; and in any case she often kept her front door ajar, where she could be seen puttering around her living room in shorts and a halter.

At one of our block meetings, when Sarah was haranguing us neighbors for the umpteenth time about the dangerous conditions on our street, I gently suggested that perhaps she should take a few precautions. It was the opportunity Sarah had long been waiting for.

"I've done nothing wrong," she scolded me. "Why should I have to change my lifestyle? Let the creeps and muggers change their lifestyle."

Ann, you see, saw crime as a personal issue to be solved through her own ingenuity. Sarah perceived it as a political issue to be solved by changing the world. And surely political solutions can be valuable over the long run. In the short run, I would suggest, it's usually easier to change your own behavior than to change someone else's.♦

To read responses, click here and here.
To read a response by Madeline Schaefer, click here.
To read a follow-up column by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read Dan Rottenberg's apology for the column above, click here.
To read a follow-up by SaraKay Smullens, click here.