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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6 Comments

  1. Posted February 16, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I’d think it would also be relevant to know in which situations rape is such a risk. Are female correspondents regularly raped during protests in Arab countries? Western countries? Is there a pattern? Surely our views on the health of a society should be informed by how likely women are to be assaulted when covering public assemblies.

  2. Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I have always been very interested in Women in Sport issues. Concerning Women ski jumpers being excluded from the Olympics cause it is too dangerous, I am not sure at all this is the case. Women do compete in “dangerous” sports in the Olympics eg Arial Skiing, Luge etc, Down Hill and Snow Boarding. In all of these sports the Women are really good at it, there is considerable International participation and there is a grass roots element to them.

    With the ski jumping my reading is that many of these Women come from upper middle class families who can afford to send them to jumping schools and frankly are not very good at it.

    Much as Women’s issues are of great interest to me SO are issues of class and race. The Feminist movement in the past has had debates about its lack of concern for the experiences of Women who are not from white middle class land. I fear sloppy framing of issues as purely a Women’s issue, such as Olympic Ski Jumping, might open those old wounds.

    • Posted February 17, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Uhm, actually a woman holds the record for the longest ski jumping on normal hill. So no, it’s not that they aren’t very good at it; rather they are better than men.

      • Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        “Uhm, actually a woman holds the record for the longest ski jumping on normal hill. ”

        This is simply not true and was an “urban myth” wrt Lindsey Van spread by some during the IOC court case in Canada. Make no mistake Lindsey Van deserves to be in the Olympics as do her close competitors. There just aren’t enough of them, yet.

        I have spent years fighting for girls sports. Most people as really reasonably and just need a little nudge, they have daughters. The two main obstacles are the lot stuck in the stone age and activists who know little of sports who make silly claims that alienate the reasonable majority.

  3. Posted February 17, 2011 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    I was listening to Chris McDougall, recently, discussing the history of women in marathons, and I’ve always found the health justifications sound as ridiculous as those used in the early history of the marathon. I work with a lot of female athletes (as a smaller guy who trains in combat sports, they often turn out to be some of my best training partners) and while I understand that there are physiological differences, I think that we do tend to overstate them.

    This is hitting the nail on the head: “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.”

    Being a reporter is a high risk job, especially when it includes traveling to a country like Egypt during a time of political upheaval. The risk of being assaulted like Anderson Cooper was is substantial. The risk for women is much, much higher. I’ve always liked Lara Logan when I’ve seen her reporting on something (I don’t watch CBS; pretty much all of my news is by internet, as a college student who doesn’t own a TV) and I hope that she is recovers as much as one possibly can from a sexual assault.

  4. Posted February 17, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I just wanted to say that even though women face added risks as journalists, it’s VERY important that women do investigate and report, simply because they can tell the stories for and about women and stories in general in ways that men just can’t. I’m not saying that to be sexist, but because of sexism. For example, reporting about rape and sexual assault, a woman journalist is more likely to develop the kind of connection needed that a female victim may need in order to feel comfortable enough to share her story. Another example would be reporting about issues that are important to women in general that men often take for granted or don’t take seriously, such as the fear women may feel in a war zone for simply existing or issues with parenting since raising children is typically a woman’s role all over the world. History has shown that if we let men tell all the stories, women tend to lose their voice.

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