Don Lemon Bill Cosby Rape apology CNN

The Only One to Blame for a Rape Is a Rapist

After Don Lemon's shocking vcomments to a Cosby accuser, Bradford J. Howard says we need to confront our need to hold victims accountable

Don Lemon Bill Cosby Rape apology CNN

Don Lemon

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Amidst resurrected allegations of comedian/cultural icon Bill Cosby sexually assaulting yet another of his former female associates, CNN correspondent Don Lemon deferred to the classic notion of “gotta hear both sides.” On Tuesday night, journalist Joan Tarshis recounted an instance to Lemon where she claims that Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him. Lemon all but insisted that she could’ve prevented it, saying, “There are ways to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it.” Shockingly, Lemon implied that Tarshis could have bit off Cosby’s penis instead of performing the act.

But this is bigger than even Don Lemon and his track record of bumbling on the issues. What’s problematic is what Don Lemon suggested, especially considering that he identifies as a former victim of sexual assault himself.



Sure, Lemon went on record to “apologize” for his line of questioning – a strategically worded apology, if I do say so myself, with the go-to default public apology statement “If my question struck anyone as insensitive, that was not my intention” – but I can’t help but to take his apology as disingenuous. Because we know what Lemon really meant. He’s not sorry about what he said or what he offered as a “solution”; he’s sorry because he came under fire for it.

Under the guise of advice, Don Lemon disrespected the gamut of statistics and research with regards to victims of sexual assault and minimized their trauma in the name of some “heroic act” he felt one victim could have done to ensure her salvation.

According to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), an average of 60% of sexual assaults often go unreported. And who can blame them, when these are the “consequences” of accusing someone of rape – an assessment of their character and credibility; a complete disregard for the trauma they have experienced; and the insistence that “you could’ve done more to prevent it yourself.”

While some rape allegations can be proven false, that doesn’t excuse Don Lemon’s comments or the agency they place on sexual assault victims to essentially “save themselves.” The act of rape is not about agency; it’s about control. It’s about limiting space to overpower a victim. A line of questioning like Lemon’s shifts the balance of that “control” – instead of putting it on the assaulter, who attempted to control the body of the victim… it puts the control on the victim to decide whether or not she (or he) is raped.

Many rape victims in one way or another already blame themselves or are made to feel guilty for their being sexually assaulted. Women, especially, are made out to be culpable in their own sexual assault, told they were “asking for it” because of clothing they wore at the time or misinterpreted behaviors (because, again, I probably missed the class where one having self-control trumped one’s wanting to have sex with another person against that person’s will). Even in a powerless situation, they struggle to consider whether there was one instance or many instances where they could’ve done something to change what happened. Most times, they couldn’t have, but the guilt can be overwhelming.

It’s romantic to imagine that women under attack might channel their inner Olivia Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or go full Jodie Foster in The Brave One. But the average rape victim is not a fictional character with quick reaction time and defensive instincts. The average rape victim is a real person. The average rape victim is often too busy trying to wrap their heads around what’s actually happening to them and being trapped in the trauma of it all, to feel compelled to agency. The average rape victim is possibly someone you know, who’s never told you for fear that you, like Don Lemon, might ask them “how could you let that happen?”

This culture where accused rapists are absolved of accountability – especially those with a high-profile, whose public image is too perfect for them to possibly be guilty of such a thing – and rape victims themselves are to blame has to go. Don Lemon deserves to be held accountable beyond just an apology; but he’s just a cog in this machine, just another example of holier-than-thou male privilege attempting to shame a rape victim.

Years ago, Ntozake Shange described this effect in her play for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, with a monologue that soberly outlines the process of thinking applied to women when they are raped –

“We must have known
Women relinquish all personal rights
in the presence of a man who apparently could be considered a rapist,
especially if he has been considered a friend.”

Instead of telling rape victims (regardless of gender or sexual identity) they “must have known,” we need to focus on the more important target – reminding rapists themselves that THEY should’ve known better. And Don Lemon should’ve known better, too.





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