On Tuesday, CBS News announced that foreign correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted while covering Egypt’s revolution. “In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers,” CBS said.
This horrific situation has unfortunately been made even uglier thanks to an outpouring of vitriol on various Web outlets. The comments section of Gawker’s post on the assault became so choked with a mélange of victim-blaming toward Logan and racism toward her attackers that the post’s author, Hamilton Nolan, was forced to move “what seemed like the most egregiously stupid threads to the ‘stupid’ page.” But Gawker’s commenters are fairly good about self-policing. As Nolan noted, “[T]he most idiotic comments seem to be followed by dozens of people calling them dumb.”
It’s easy, however, to spew vitriol anonymously in the comments section of a blog. But it takes real chutzpah to say something with your real name attached to it, as journalist Nir Rosen did shortly after news of the assault broke. Rosen, a regular contributor to high-caliber publications including The Atlantic and Harper’s, took to his Twitter account with a series of tone-deaf jokes at Logan’s expense. “Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson. Where was her buddy McCrystal,” Rosen said, referring to Anderson Cooper’s own run-in with Egyptian protesters. In a later tweet, he said, “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger.” He then added she was probably groped “like thousands of other women, which is still wrong.”
There are a mind-boggling number of things wrong with those tweets – pretty impressive for a format that limits its users to 140 characters. Imagine how much further Rosen could have inserted his foot into his mouth with a full blog post. And isn’t the “war monger” comment just the wonky, political version of, “Well, she always wears short skirts and tube tops”?
“Rape and sexual assault is the only crime where the victim is put on trial,” says Erin Matson, the Action Vice President for the National Organization for Women. “It’s horribly offensive to women to suggest that a woman is at fault for being sexually assaulted.” But while the Internet sadly “facilitates hostile discussion” when it comes to sexual assault victims, Matson says, it also makes it “easier for people to speak out against victim-blaming.”
Indeed, members of the online community stepped forward to mete out their own digital vigilante justice. Outcry across the blogosphere was enough to get Rosen to delete his offending tweets, quit his NYU fellowship, and offer the following apology on, of course, Twitter: “I know that in a matter of seconds with a thoughtless joke, I brought shame upon myself and my family and added insult to Ms. Logan’s injury.”
He also mea culpa’d on FishbowlDC, saying, “I feel like shrinking now, I am so embarrassed for what I have done and how many people I offended. I always meant for my work to offend the powerful and give comfort to the weak. Yesterday I did the opposite of that.”
Too little, too late? Maybe not. Perhaps some good can come out of Rosen’s Twitastrophe. It never hurts to be reminded that words matter. Whether you’re arguing in the comments section of your favorite blog or tweeting about how annoying your boss is, it’s always wise to engage your brain before you type and click. Besides preserving your social life, your job, and your self-respect, you can avoid making any woman who has been the victim of sexual violence feel like she was in any way “asking for it.”
Seeing the online mistreatment of Logan can also influence how other victims treat their own assault. “Many of the survivors we work with describe the feelings of guilt and shame and fear of not being believed,” says Katherine Hull, a spokesperson for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). “All of those factors can influence a survivor’s decision to come forward. No victim asks to be assaulted.” Still, Hull says, RAINN applauds Logan’s “courageousness and strength” and hopes that her recovery can inspire other survivors.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual violence, you can reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline online or at 800-656-HOPE.