When rape is a risk that comes with the job

News broke today that CBS News correspondent Lara Logan “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating” while she was covering the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square. As Garance Franke-Ruta pointed out on Twitter, the fact that we’re hearing about this probably means that Logan was OK with making her assault public. This is an incredibly brave act, not just from a personal standpoint — she has come out as a sexual assault survivor — but also from a professional one.

Concerns for women’s safety (some valid, some overblown) have long been used as an excuse to exclude us from all sorts of jobs and opportunities. It’s why we’re technically banned from military combat positions. It’s why we still aren’t allowed to ski-jump in the Olympics. It’s one reason why there are so few women reporting from war zones and areas where there is political unrest. This creates a hard rhetorical line to walk: Some jobs are indeed more dangerous for women than for men. But women still have every right to hold those jobs, too. In fact, when it comes to many dangerous professions, it’s only by women’s inclusion that conditions can begin to change.

Just this week my friend Mac McClelland, the human rights correspondent for Mother Jones, wrote about enrolling in self-defense classes as one way of dealing with her PTSD after having her safety threatened while reporting on rape in Haiti. (She’s about to head to Africa to report on rape again.) Here’s her reaction to the Logan story:

Two nights before I left [Haiti], an argument outside my hotel about my refusal to sleep with another man who was in my employ turned ugly enough that I ultimately begged protection from a passing patron carrying a gun. And as Judith Matloff explains in this excellent 2007 article from the Columbia Journalism Review, this kind of stuff happens to lady-reporters all the time.

Which is obviously horrible. But additionally horrible, and less obvious, is that however common it is for correspondents to be sexually harassed, threatened, or assaulted, it’s hardly ever talked about. Reporters themselves often fail to bring it up: You don’t want to make it sound like you can’t handle your assignment, or, worse, your job in general, especially given the difficulty of avoiding perpetrators, who are often men you are paying to assist or protect you and the only people you know in a foreign country—translators, drivers, guards.

And the journalism institution isn’t helping to facilitate the dialogue. There are, as Matloff points out, some unforgivable industry oversights, like “no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists.”

Do reporters like Lara Logan and Mac face greater threats to their safety than male reporters do in similar situations? Yes. But do they also, by dint of their gender, gain greater access to certain sources — and arguably do their job better? Sometimes, yeah. I have a hard time believing that rape survivors in Haiti would have been as open with a male reporter as they were with Mac. Doing everything in our power to ensure the safety of women reporters — and supporting them unequivocally when that safety is threatened or violated — isn’t just important on feminist grounds. It’s important on journalistic grounds, too.

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