An Open Letter to CNN’s Don Lemon and Other Journalists Who Interview Women Who Report They were Sexually Assaulted

Dear Mr. Lemon:

National and international media outlets are covering various aspects of the rape allegations made against actor and comedian Bill Cosby, dating back over four decades.  None of it is surprising – not additional victims coming forward, not various celebrities expressing skepticism or disbelief, not stories about the psychological functioning or motives of those bringing allegations.

Nor is it surprising that women who come forward are being asked why they didn’t fight back.

On the evening of November 18, CNN reporter Don Lemon, in an interview with Joan Tarshis, one of several women who are reporting they were raped or assaulted by Cosby, said the following:

“You know, there are ways not perform oral sex if you didn’t want to…meaning using of the teeth…as a weapon…biting…I had to ask.”

No, Mr. Lemon, you didn’t have to ask.

We’re not going to ask you if you would bite the penis of a man orally raping you, Mr. Lemon.  We’re not going to ask you if you think you would do it, if a man tried to orally rape you, either.

That’s not a question, Mr. Lemon.  That’s victim-blaming.

Advocates of self-defense and self-defense training for women could tell you that, Mr. Lemon.  We don’t tell women what they should do.  We don’t ask them why they didn’t do it, if they have been raped or assaulted in the past.

Ms. Tarshis says that it did not occur to her to bite his penis.  That is the option that occurred to you, when you heard the story, Mr. Lemon.  It may or may not have occurred to you in the moment if someone were assaulting you.

This is why self-defense training is so important.  Championing self-defense training for women should not be confused with saying that a woman should have resisted.  Self-defense training teaches women strategies and options so that if someone tries to rape or assault them, they have a range of choices available to them.  And so that they feel empowered to act on those choices, if they choose to, because they believe they are entitled to, because they have the knowledge and practice in doing so, and because they know that if one strategy doesn’t work, another one – verbal or physical – might.  Self-defense training helps make resistance a viable option.  And, Mr. Lemon, we trust that women make the choice that is the safest, the best, for them, in that moment, and we don’t judge or question their choices.

We don’t tell them what that choice should have been, Mr. Lemon, because we don’t know.  And asking a survivor of rape or sexual assault why they didn’t resist in the particular way you can envision, even though you were not there and have no idea whether that would have been a safe, viable, or appropriate choice, is telling them what you think they should have done.  Or what you think you would have done.

Instead, Mr. Lemon, you could have applauded Ms. Tarshis for coming forward with her story, and told her that you don’t blame her or hold her responsible for the violence that was perpetrated against her.  You could have told her that you believe that she made the best choice she could in a terrifying and dangerous situation.

Mr. Lemon, perhaps you were trying to be helpful.  So let us help you, Mr. Lemon, with what NOT TO SAY to someone who tells you they were raped or sexually assaulted:

  1. Why didn’t you…(fight back, knee him in the groin, bite his penis, scream for help…or whatever you believe she should have/you would have done in the same situation)?
  2. Why did you…(wear that, go there, say that, do that…or whatever behavior you see as the reason she was raped or sexually assaulted)?
  3. Why were you…(drinking, drunk, smoking, high…or using whatever substance you think made her responsible for someone raping or sexually assaulting her)?
  4. If it were me…(fill in the blank with your solution to avoiding rape or sexual assault).

Resistance is complicated, and difficult, and scary, Mr. Lemon, and while many girls and women resist – some with self-defense training, and more without – your question suggests that resistance is simple and easy and obvious and what you would have done/what everyone should have done.  Your question suggests that in the absence of resistance, it wasn’t really rape, or that the rape was the responsibility of the survivor, not the perpetrator.

Mr. Lemon, we live in a society that does not offer girls and women any regular opportunities to learn how to value themselves and their bodily boundaries, or how to use their bodies aggressively (remember, we’re the cheerleaders, not the football players), and in a society that routinely tells girls and women NOT to fight back because it won’t work or they’ll get hurt or they’ll make things worse.  And yet, the question you ask is, “Why Didn’t She Do This or That Aggressive Act in Self-Defense?!

We could add, Mr. Lemon, how about you ask why we’re not teaching girls and women to defend themselves, violently, if necessary.  That’s our question, Mr. Lemon.  Next time, make it yours.


Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey

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