A political affair

"Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You'

7 minute read
Norton, as Rottenberg, restraining beastly males: Beware men in slacks and ties.
Norton, as Rottenberg, restraining beastly males: Beware men in slacks and ties.
Dan Rottenberg's controversial column on "Sexual Assault and Female Naiveté" seems to have produced two divergent interpretations. The first paints Rottenberg as a sexist pervert, bent on convincing women that rape can be avoided if only they took the proper precautions. Followers of this interpretation see an old, white, distinguished man, trying to tell women to conform to a society in which rape is acceptable behavior. This Dan Rottenberg embodies everything that many young people hate about society and people (mostly men) in positions of power.

The other interpretation, usually adopted by older generations, understands Dan's article as a simple attempt to protect young women from unwanted sexual assault. It's not women's fault when they are the victim of sexual assault; this is simply the society in which we live. If one wants to avoid provoking unwanted behavior, one had better be aware of the "reality" of the male race and its aggressive tendencies.

For a good dose of that first interpretation completely slamming the second, I attended the one-time production of Dan Rottenberg is Thinking About Raping You: An Educational Presentation. The crowd at Plays & Players was filled with progressive young men and women (mostly women), all of whom were, by my estimation, under the age of 35. The show started at around 10:30 (another reason why the crowd was likely rather young) and was supported by "SlutWalk Philadelphia," an organization that works to "challenge the thinking that it's acceptable to live in a victim-blaming society."

Taking no prisoners

Needless to say, it was a very political affair. The play, satirical and hilariously funny, directly critiqued the notion that women must "protect" themselves from the male race in a society in which rape is still deemed acceptable. And it took no prisoners.

Dan Rottenberg, played by Brendan Norton, was dressed as "the Man," in slacks, blue button-down shirt and a tie. With note cards in hand, he hastily paced across the stage, presenting his easy, five-step program for avoiding sexual assault.

Brendan Norton depicted Rottenberg as sleazy, repressive and condescending; a depiction that I can understand as a young, progressive person myself, having read the article. Yet as someone who knows Dan Rottenberg, who has worked with him and trusts his judgment, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with this depiction.

Articulating rage

As my companion pointed out, however, this play wasn't about coming to terms with the human voices behind this opinion, or about reconciliation and dialogue between differing parties; this was a political event, in which the individual is sacrificed for a larger, political agenda. There is a winner and a loser, and Dan was clearly the loser.

As such, the play did an excellent job at articulating the rage expressed by hundreds if not thousands of people, even if that articulation was rather extreme. The performance went through nearly every line in Rottenberg's article (almost word for word) and took that point to its absolute extreme.

One of the steps that Blouin's Dan Rottenberg proposes for women is to dress conservatively so as not to attract male attention; his female assistant, Leslie, was wearing a turtle neck, long dress, long johns and sneakers— the perfect outfit, according to Dan Rottenberg, for a woman to avoid rape.

Bag that head!

But wait— her hands and head are still exposed! Dan suggests that Leslie, and all women, don paper bags in order to avoid the aggressive tendencies of the male gender. Under everyone's seat was a paper bag to wear for their own protection. Extreme and very funny.

Not many in the audience actually put on the bag, of course, but the message was clear: Dan Rottenberg's message has larger implications for the kind of behavior and standards we, as a society, deem acceptable.

Enter Lara Logan

Lara Logan was also depicted in the play by the very funny Angela Smith. While being interviewed by Dan about her experience in Egypt, she admitted openly to being at fault for her own rape by hundreds of men in Tahrir Square:

"Of course I was thinking about sex when I wore the dress Dan Rottenberg features at the top of his article! And I should have known that it would lead to my eventual assault! If only women would stop provoking men, sexual abuse would never be a problem!"

The absurdity of Lara's response pokes blatant holes in this very specific interpretation of Dan Rottenberg's basic beliefs and motivations.

Men as primitive beasts

Another voice that until now has gone largely unnoticed is that of young men who resent Dan Rottenberg's relegation of the male race to primitive beasts without control over their desires and need for "control." We're not animals, one male character argues to Dan during his presentation; we have the power to change our behavior, to speak out against sexual assault and educate other men to stop sexually aggressive behavior. Other men throughout the play were depicted as slaves to their own reproductive organs, one going so far as to fall on the floor in agony after seeing a photo of Lara Logan on his iPhone.

I commend the voice of men speaking up for the evolution and education of male sexual aggression— I wish there were more male allies on this issue. I also know that many older folks (my mother included) are convinced that "boys will be boys" and it's impossible to change biology.

Which view is correct? How do we not only rebel against this archaic belief but also educate those who understand it to be true?

Generations in conflict

I've spent weeks trying to come up with a written reaction to Dan's original article. The more I discuss the issues, however, the more complicated and convoluted the matter becomes. I agree wholeheartedly with nearly every critique of Dan's essay presented in Cara Blouin's play. Women shouldn't have to dress any particular way to avoid being raped— rape is and should be shunned as completely unacceptable behavior.

So what, then, is the answer to the problem of rape?

Older generations tend to understand the world as operating in a particular manner, with rules and roadblocks and countless other obstacles for living an ideal existence. This perspective likely results from years of battles with authorities in attempts to live out their ideals.

Laughter as a tool

Young people tend to live in a world in which individuals must stand up and fight for change. Both views are valid or at least sincere and well intended.

I commend the playwright, Cara Blouin for putting, as she expressed it elsewhere, "Rottenberg's ideas under the lights to be laughed at— exactly where they belong." Her play was a witty, funny satire— the perfect opportunity for the younger generation to engage in dialogue about the problem of rape.

But we shouldn't forget the older generation; they care for us and our safety, even if their means of expressing that concern comes dressed in terms we find archaic and limiting. I hope that those who are most concerned about Dan Rottenberg's article will be the first to begin a dialogue not only with young, progressive men and women, but with older people as well. That's essential if we want to see real change.

What, When, Where

Dan Rottenberg is Thinking About Raping You: An Educational Presentation. By Cara Blouin. Forearm Productions presentation June 25, 2011 at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place. (215) 735-0630 or www.playsandplayers.org.

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