Last week, journalist Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a group of protesters in Egypt. Details of the assault emerged over time: She was forcibly isolated from her crew. She was beaten; some of her assailants used flagpoles. Some of her hair was pulled out. Red marks, originally thought to be bite marks, were found near “sensitive” parts of her body; they were deemed the result of “aggressive pinching.” She was saved by a group of women, who threw themselves on top of her, physically shielding her from the crowd. One assumes those women were assaulted as well, although no details about this have emerged, and not many people reporting on the story have paused to note the probable cost for a woman who places herself physically between a sexual assailant and his target; next to the story of (white, South African born, American-based) Logan, the heroic actions of those Egyptian women have become all but invisible. The details are harsh, they are graphic, and they are terrifying.
They are also, as high-profile sexual assault cases go, atypical. For one, Logan’s name was made public almost immediately, with her consent. Her assailants have not been named, and probably won’t be named in the future, which is why the assault can legally be reported as fact. Logan is also more famous and socially powerful than her assailants; in the vast majority of high-profile sexual assault cases, that power dynamic is reversed. And then, there was the nature of the assault itself: Public, hugely and brutally violent, carried out by a gang of strangers. It’s nightmarish to contemplate. It’s also very hard to minimize or deny.
If you were looking for a sexual assault case to contrast with Logan’s, you’d… well, you’d find a lot of them. But one illustrative case, which seems to differ from Logan’s in almost every significant detail, is that of Miss A and Miss W, the two Swedish women who accused WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of rape. We should be clear: The stories of Miss A and Miss W cannot be printed as fact. This is because, until Assange goes to trial, there is no way for the public to know whether they are true. A judge will rule this week whether Assange will be extradited from Britain to Sweden, but we are a long way from a trial at present.
What matters here are the dynamics of power, and the specifics of the case. For starters, Assange is famous and powerful; his accusers are not. His name has been attached to the case publicly; responsible media outlets have avoided printing the names of the two women, which is standard in sexual assault cases. But their names have been so widely leaked that avoiding them has become impossible, and they have been the subject of a rabid smear campaign. One blog post asserted (on no evidence) that Miss A was affiliated with the CIA. This blog post was embraced and promoted widely, sometimes by people with a great deal of reach, such as Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann. However, the love for the post died down when it was discovered that the author, Israel Shamir, was both a Holocaust denier and (what is more relevant) a freelancer for WikiLeaks. His son, too, was a WikiLeaks representative. In — wait for it — Sweden.
Then, there are the allegations themselves, and the fact that no-one seems to know whether they constitute “rape.” The relevant information has been available for months. Assange is accused of tearing Miss A’s clothing off while she resisted him, and of forcibly holding her down to prevent her from reaching for a condom, while she struggled to free herself. (He later put on a condom, which broke; Miss A suspected that he tore it.) These allegations qualify as sexual assault. Miss W’s account is even simpler: She says that she had consensual sex with Assange, that he stayed overnight at her place, and that she awoke the next morning to find him penetrating her. If this is true, Miss W was definitively raped by Julian Assange; despite arguments to the contrary, put forth by Assange’s defense at his extradition hearings, penetrating an unconscious person is regarded as rape in Sweden, in Great Britain, in Australia, and several other countries.
But the contrast is clear. In Logan’s case, all is fact. We believe her, as we have every reason to do. In the Assange case, nothing can be definitively known. In Logan’s case, the violence is clear and visible; in the Assange case, the alleged violence has widely been trivialized and dismissed. (In response to the allegation that Assange forcibly pinned a struggling woman and forced her legs open, Assange’s defender Geoffrey Robinson said that it was “what is usually termed the missionary position.”) In Logan’s case, the assailants were strangers, and they had multiple witnesses; in the Assange case, the alleged assaults took place privately, between acquaintances, which is also the case with most actual rapes.
We don’t need to play ranking games here. What happened to Logan was horrific; if the allegations against Assange are true, those assaults were also horrific. But one might assume — I did — that Logan would not be subject to the same sort of defamation or victim-blaming that Miss A or Miss W have been. We know it happened; there’s no way to dismiss it. We know that she was outnumbered and overpowered; there’s no way to blame her for what happened. Right?
Wrong. Just as Miss A and Miss W were subject to nasty insinuations about their sexuality and lifestyle — the Daily Mail found the time to tell the world that Miss A was “an attractive blonde” and “a well-known ‘radical feminist,’” and to assert that the case had negative implications for both women’s “values” — the coverage of Logan’s assault often focused on her sexuality or attractiveness. Simone Wilson of LA Weekly described her as a “blonde reporter” who was “known for her shocking good looks,” and whose “sex life famously came under fire” two years before the (completely unrelated) attack. Just as people insinuated that Miss A and Miss W somehow invited an attack, they said the same about Logan. A poll asking whether Logan was “to blame for her sexual assault” was created; in the comment section, there were posters such as the (female) Brianne, who wrote, “you walk into a place full of crazy barbarians and you’re a vulnerable girl dressed like a slut with no protection, of course she should have seen it coming. I don’t feel sorry in the least fucking bit.” Which, of course, is another factor in the Logan case: Good old-fashioned racism.Reliably loathsome right-wing commentator Debbie Schlussel is of the opinion that Logan was “sexually assaulted by Muslims because that’s what they do to women (and young boys and livestock).” Charming.
But what stands out here is how very similar the reactions have been, in two such different cases. One popular theory, of course, is that Assange’s accusers are lying to exact some complicated revenge upon him. They may be; again, we can’t know what happened unless Assange goes to trial. But no-one is calling Lara Logan a liar. What they are calling her is a sexy slutty-dressing blonde who should have seen it coming. What they are doing is asserting that the assault was her fault; what they are doing is refusing her any human sympathy. The feminist thesis of “rape culture” is pretty heavily contested; many people don’t seem to know what it actually means. But what it means is this: As Logan’s case shows, whether or not we believe women who press rape charges, we treat them much the same. And the way we treat them often amounts to a second, more public assault.