Don Lemon is just another reminder that society believes the onus of safety is on women. Which is why the language we use around assault is more important than ever.
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When CNN’s Don Lemon attempted to school one of the 15 women who have accused Bill Cosby on how she might have avoided being sexually assaulted, I wish I could say his language shocked me. It didn’t. His words echoed from months past. “There are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it,” Lemon told Joan Tarshis, who had the decency not to punch him in the nose.
A woman sober enough to throw a punch, after all, is all it takes to disarm a sexual assailant, according to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the president emeritus of my alma mater. That’s what he said, on a late summer episode of The Diane Rehm Show, about how college women can prevent rape: “They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave.”
My response at the time was more succinct. “OMFG,” I tweeted.
One in five women is sexually assaulted in college. I’m not one of them. Given the rhetoric from men like George Washington University’s Trachtenberg (who is still on the payroll) and George “Coveted Status” Will, and even women like Slate’s Emily Yoffe, I should be commended for exerting self-control over my alcohol intake, my fashion choices, my sexuality. Even my progressive-minded boyfriend once attempted to compliment me by saying I must have been smart and avoided dangerous situations.
Instead, I call my experience avoiding sexual assault what it is: pure, dumb, extraordinary luck.
I didn’t do anything special. I don’t deserve any accolades. I put myself in plenty of “dangerous situations” in college and beyond. Some people bring the party, Jean Ralphio–style. I brought it way down. I was an epic party pooper. When my friends and I went to bars, I’d lurk for the nearest available seat. When we went to campus parties, I’d make a beeline for the nearest available couch. Often, I’d fall asleep on it. Sometimes I had a drink, or two, or three in me. Sometimes I was stone cold sober, or close enough.
Either way, I never woke up to a friend, or a frat boy, or a stranger with his hands under my clothes. I easily could have. Why not me?
I also could have been sexually assaulted in any number of seemingly innocuous situations, like riding the elevator in my residence hall. That’s what happened to a GW sophomore raped in April 2013. And in the days after Trachtenberg cautioned women to “punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave,” a sexual assault occurred at a campus fraternity house.
My so-called luck is wound up in implications with which I’m not entirely comfortable. It implies that I should feel grateful to have escaped sexual assault thus far—specifically, grateful to the men who chose not to assault me, no matter what the situation.
When I was 24, I got into a car with a man I had met previously at a Hoboken bar crawl. I did not feel comfortable making out with him while standing on the streets of New York City, even though I recall the particular street where he had parked was quiet. Shaded. He did some things to me that I initially resisted. No. No. No. Okay. And then he wanted me to do more than reciprocate. Should I thank him for not forcing my head into his lap as he pressured me to do so? Should I thank him for not yanking me back by the hair as I slammed the car door shut? Through the open window, he kept telling me to get back in the car. That he would drive me the two blocks, maybe three, to the apartment where I was staying. No, I said as I walked away. No. No. No, I repeated as he finally drove off.
I tried to sleep on my friend’s couch afterward, contemplating what had happened and what far, far worse things could have happened. She had not wanted me to go. She was right. But that didn’t make what he did to me right. And what he didn’t do to me could have happened anywhere. In the elevator of my apartment building. On the walk home from the Metro.
That’s why I hesitate to add “luck” to what Roxane Gay—who considers herself a “lucky girl” these days—calls the careless language of sexual violence. Avoiding sexual assault shouldn’t be a matter of luck. Of punching a guy in the nose if he misbehaves. That rhetoric is as demeaning to male rape survivors as it is to those who are female. It also leaves out transgender individuals, who are particularly vulnerable to violence of all kinds.
Trachtenberg, who clearly has no understanding of nuance let alone such a range of experiences, has since gone on to further clarify what he meant. “Apologizing isn’t exactly the word I would use. I’m explaining,” he told the Washington Post.
Steven Knapp, the current president of the university, issued a statement condemning sexual assault—but not Trachtenberg’s comments. “He is free, as an individual faculty member, to express his personal views,” Knapp said of his predecessor. I would hope free speech from someone in a position of power and influence over college students would be far more intelligent.
Instead, Trachtenberg put the onus of avoiding sexual assault on women. Trachtenberg is not the first to do so, and Don Lemon probably won’t be the last—though I suppose a girl can dream. I may not be comfortable with my “luck,” but it comes with a responsibility to speak up against such careless language. Being lucky doesn’t mean I get to be complacent when people like them open their mouths. To the contrary. Them’s fighting words.
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