Facing Sexual Assault

On Tuesday of last week, two stories broke.

One you've undoubtedly heard about: Lara Logan, a chief foreign correspondent for CBS, was sexually assaulted by a mob while covering the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for 60 Minutes in Tahrir Square. Glenn Beck pretended as if the news were proof of his various Egyptian conspiracy theories, journalist Nir Rosen seized the moment to write offensive (and clearly jealous) tweets about Logan, eventually leading to his resignation as a New York University fellow, and conservative pundit Debbie Schlussel saw an opportunity in Logan's misfortune to spew Islamaphobia. A veteran female journalist even sent around photographs of what she used to wear when she reported in Islamic countries to a listserv that I'm on, suggesting not so subtly that Logan asked for it because she's pretty and didn't cover that up adequately.

The other story didn't make as much of an impression. A federal lawsuit was filed accusing the Department of Defense of, according to The New York Times, "allowing a military culture that fails to prevent rape and sexual assault, and of mishandling cases that were brought to its attention, thus violating the plaintiffs' constitutional rights." In a news conference last week, one of the plaintiffs, Sara Albertson, highlighted how hard it had been to come forward and how officers to whom the assaults were reported often did nothing. "Nobody wants to say that there has been a rape in their command," she said.

It's a good week for studying how scared our country still is of facing the truth about sexual assault and discussing it respectfully. Nobody wants to say that there has been a rape in their home, school, workplace, community, or even nation. Lara Logan was violated on foreign ground while reporting in the midst of revolution; thus, reactors are quick to point the finger at barbaric Egyptians or the risqué Logan, rather than admitting that the circumstances may have been extraordinary, but the basic violation was as sadly commonplace. In Albertson and her fellow plaintiffs' case, we don't so much point fingers as turn and look the other way. Perhaps we can't face the latter because it reminds us of how unextraordinary rape really is in this country. It's pervasive, indiscriminate, and too often, condoned by those with the most power to stop it.

The plaintiffs in the military case, 15 women and two men, were violated twice -- once by their perpetrators and again by the military leadership who not only didn't hold their perpetrators accountable but sometimes promoted and glorified them. These 17 active-duty service members and veterans called out Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld to take responsibility in a military where "personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest Congressionally mandated institutional reforms," and failed "to take reasonable steps to prevent plaintiffs from being repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed by federal military personnel."

Contrast that with the outrage with which Logan's assault was treated. According to CBS news, Logan was saved by a group of women and about 20 Egyptian soldiers before reconnecting with her news team. She was flown out the next morning and received medical care in an American hospital. President Barack Obama called her with healing wishes late last week.

Every victim of sexual assault deserves the kind of care and concern that Logan has received. It's hard not to feel disgusted -- not just with our military leadership but with ourselves -- when sexual-assault victims are silenced, neglected, and forgotten. The contrast between Lara Logan's treatment and those of the veterans fighting back is especially stark because these things were reported on the very same news day.

Why is the public's response to these two stories so different? To put a spin on the famous Joseph Stalin quotation, is it that one sexual assault is a tragedy and 3,230 are a statistic? (That's the number of sexual assaults in the military last year, according to the Department of Defense's latest annual report; it was an 11 percent increase from the year before.)

Or is it because Lara Logan's experience feels safer for us to discuss? Her perpetrators were strangers in extraordinary circumstances; a statistical anomaly. By contrast, the sexual-assault stories that service women and men have experienced happened under the same types of circumstances and with the same types of perpetrators as most of the cases in the larger population. The majority of the 250,000 rape victims in the U.S. each year know their attacker. Does hearing about these devastating sexual assaults remind us that we are vulnerable even in our most intimate relationships?

As citizens, ostensibly protected by the Sara Albertsons of this country, it is our duty and responsibility to take her rights, her dignity, and her care as seriously as we do Logan's. Both were doing honorable work, but they've received vastly different receptions from the average news junkie all the way up to the president of the United States.

Even more important, we need to see this week and its string of deeply sad stories as an opportunity to educate people and launch a real, respectful public dialogue about sexual assault. The high number of sexual assaults directly contradicts everything we claim to stand for as a nation. After all, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are anathema in a world where rape is so common. Sexual assault doesn't just break bodies; it destroys citizens.

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