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November 21, 2014

Don Lemon and the Danger of Ignorance

CNN Anchor Don Lemon

Robin Nelson—Zuma Press/Corbis

CNN Anchor Don Lemon

Robin Nelson—Zuma Press/Corbis

At this point most people have heard about Don Lemon and his conversation with Cosby accuser Joan Tarshis. However, in case you have been living under a rock, Bill Cosby is currently facing allegations from multiple women for drugging and raping them throughout his career. One of the women, Joan Tarshis, went on CNN to speak with Don Lemon. In response to the story of her having to give Cosby oral sex, instead of follow-up questions about her side of the story, he instead stated, “There are ways not to perform oral sex if you don’t want to do it.” To which Tarshis replied, “Oh, I was kind of stoned at the time and quite honestly, that didn’t even enter my mind. Now, I wish it would have. I didn’t even think of it.”

Cue the collective cringe. This statement of Lemon’s got a lot of backlash and even a Twitter hashtag, “#donlemonreporting”. But of all this begs the question, was what he said simply stating that this woman could have fought back, really all that bad? The answer is an astounding YES.

If a professional newscaster—who himself was a victim of sexual assault—can let these ideas come out of his mouth on national television, just shows how much further the discussion of rape culture has to go.

It is no one’s job but the perpetrator to avoid, prevent, or stop a rape or assault from happening. People seem to forget about all the emotions and fear someone can be experiencing during an assault. If you get mugged, you are taught to hand over your wallet because it is not worth your life, so when you are in a position as vulnerable as rape, why are we not taught that it is okay to do everything we can to survive the attack, even when that means going along with it? There is fight and flight and then there is shock, fear, drugged, drunk, passed out, and incapacitated.

I myself am a rape survivor. A few years ago, I decided that I was tired of my experience being something I held so close to my chest. Because of this, I posted a facebook status detailing what I had been through. I could have never been prepared for the flood of emails and comments I had from other friends, both men and women, stating that they themselves were survivors. I was overwhelmed.

Some friends had gone to the police with physical evidence. Some had hidden underneath shame and guilt and rarely spoke of it. But what I had not been expecting were the multiple emails from friends I received asking if what they had gone through “counted as rape”.

One friend did not think she had said “No” loud enough. Another tried to fight back but gave up half way through as not to anger the assailant any further. Another friend was raped on a kitchen floor with a party going on right in the next room. She did not even speak because she was in such shock that it was even happening. All of these friends seemed to feel validated when I explained that they had definitely been raped and if it was something they did not consent to, that they still thought about and questioned all these years later, and if it felt enough like rape for them to wonder if it was, then yes, it was.

Rape culture and the discussion around it have come a long way in the last five years. It is being discussed on national television. College campuses are taking more responsibility, and when they do not, survivors are more likely to speak up. The idea of “no means no” has turned into the idea of everything but an enthusiastic yes means no. Plus, people are finally beginning to put the onus of preventing sexual assault on perpetrators instead of questioning what victims could have done differently to avoid it.

If Don Lemon’s reaction and statements would have been made five or ten years ago, it would have been wrong but I could have brushed it off as ignorance. However, in 2014, when the discussion is so prevalent and when the resources and information are so readily available, there is no excuse. Though it did not seem to bother Tarshis much, I bet she went home wondering why she indeed did not try to fight back during her assault. Perhaps another victim watching and questioning whether they should go to the police heard that and second-guessed themselves. Perhaps with just a tiny statement, the fight against rape culture took two giant steps back.

These reasons, along with a multitude of others, are why there is no longer any room for such dangerous ignorance, both in the discussion and most definitely in the media.

Watch the video here: