In the June 2001 issue of British Cosmopolitan, the agony aunt Irma Kurtz replied to a reader’s letter about rape. I think Irma’s advice was irresponsible, insensitive, and re-iterates all the old myths about rape that we have tried so hard to break down over 30 years of feminism
In the June 2001 issue of British Cosmopolitan, the agony aunt Irma Kurtz replied to a reader’s letter about rape. Here’s the question and Irma’s reply:
Have I been raped?
I was in this guy’s bedroom – we’d fooled around once before, but nothing serious. I didn’t feel like sex, so I pretended to be asleep. He started to undress me and I froze as I realised he was entering me from behind. Was I raped? I have threatened legal action but he claims he only wanted to make the night special. I feel sick. What should I do?
Did you tell him to get off you? Did you even say ‘No!’? If you resisted and he carried on ‘making the night special’, then you’ve every right to go to the law and you should, to protect other women from his attention. However, the law is there to see both sides. When you say that you didn’t ‘feel like sex’, it suggests you are sexually experienced, even though you had not slept with this man before. And so I (and probably the law) have to ask, what were you, a knowing young woman, doing lying on his bed, if you did not expect him to take it as an invitation? Unless he drugged you or you were desperately ill, you are responsible for yourself. If you cannot say, hand-on-heart, you have absolutely no responsibility for this unfortunate event, I’m afraid the best thing you can do, is learn from it. If a woman goes alone to a man’s room and lies down on his bed, it will not generally be seen as an innocent act. Let the lesson remain: you’re worth more than this – never let it happen again.
Irma Kurtz in June 2001 Cosmopolitan
So, what do you think? Harsh, but fair? Telling it like it is? Uncomfortable, but ultimately true?
Well, I disagree. I think that Irma has majorly screwed up, and that her reply is irresponsible, insensitive and sends completely the wrong messages out to the readers of Cosmopolitan.
My concerns are not just about the advice given to the particular person who wrote the letter, but also the messages she is sending out to other women who may have been raped and can relate to the girl’s situation. I am not concerned about whether ‘the law’ would think it was rape or not or whether the case would stand up in court. That’s a whole other article. What bothers me is that Irma Kurtz seems to be reiterating all the old myths about rape that we have tried so hard to break down over 30 years of feminism.
I am also not writing here about Cosmopolitan’s attitude to rape in general, as a ‘magazine.’ I believe Cosmo has recently had some articles about rape and on helping women to protect themselves. Although they’d never mention the f-word (feminism), they do some good work campaigning for women’s rights in areas like contraception and the workplace. I applaud this. But I can’t be persuaded to see this reply in context of the magazine’s previous issues and articles, and to think it’s okay simply because they’ve addressed rape elsewhere. I very rarely buy it; I have to look at what’s there in the issue I have. And this particular response from one of Cosmo’s veteran contributors (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way) appalls me.
Let’s take another look at what Irma said. This will take a little while but it helps to deconstruct what she is saying.
Did you tell him to get off you? Did you even say ‘No!’? If you resisted and he carried on ‘making the night special’, then you’ve every right to go to the law and you should, to protect other women from his attention.
The original question was, ‘was I raped’? Irma is saying: it depends. Well, that’s fair enough. But what does it depend on, according to Irma? It doesn’t depend on consent, because that obviously wasn’t given. It doesn’t depend on what the man did. He entered her from behind without her consent when she was lying frozen and unresponsive on a bed. But that doesn’t matter.
No, according to Irma, whether it was rape or not depends on how the she reacted to him entering her from behind. If she screamed and fought and struggled, it was rape, and she should act accordingly – which Irma says is going to the law. Nobody could argue with that. However, if she froze, motionless, unresponsive – out of fear, shock, or whatever – then it wasn’t rape, according to Irma. If you are too scared to fight back, if you don’t have enough confidence, if you think it would be safer to go along for fear of worse being done to you, if you freeze, if you don’t have the courage, then it’s not rape, and don’t waste everybody’s time.
So what was it then? We find out a little further down the paragraph: ‘an unfortunate event.’ Never mind that this woman seems confused and in her own words, feels sick. Never mind that she didn’t want sex, didn’t give consent, and didn’t respond to his crude attempts to ‘make the night special’. It was just an unfortunate event, and what’s more, she bears responsibility for it.
However, the law is there to see both sides.
Ah, here we go. Well, after just one miserly sentence on what to do if she thinks it was rape (which according to Irma is a pretty narrow definition), we get onto the real focus of Irma’s argument: blaming the girl for what happened, and using ‘the law’ as her reasoning. Well, if Irma thinks the law as it applies to rape is a template for giving out advice to young women, she is living in cloud-cuckoo land.
When I asked women on the thirdwave mailing list what they thought about this whole thing, Charlotte Honigman-Smith commented about this; “That’s a spectacularly weird way to describe what the law is there for.”
When you say that you didn’t ‘feel like sex’, it suggests you are sexually experienced, even though you had not slept with this man before.
Oh, boy. Now that’s an old one, bringing out the previous sexual experience issue. Irma is going waaayyy off track here.
First of all, how on earth does ‘didn’t feel like sex’ suggest that she is sexually experienced? That’s one hell of an assumption. And even if she has had sex before, what relevance does it have?
We are getting into dangerous territory here; the territory which says that if a woman has had sex before, she’s probably partly responsible for the rape, or even if she wasn’t it doesn’t matter as much as it would if she were a virgin. I am not saying that Irma Kurtz believes this herself, but by bringing up the issue of previous sexual experience she is veering towards that mindset. Feminists have been fighting for years to try to prevent a woman’s previous sexual history being brought up in court. Research has shown that if a woman has had more than one or two sexual partners in her life, the jury tends to trust her less and her credibility goes down. The more sex a woman has had – if she has even expressed an interest or enjoyment of sex – the less plausible she becomes as a rape victim. That’s why people very rarely care if a prostitute is raped, because they are seen to be slags anyway.
So why did Irma bring up this issue? Read on:
And so I (and probably the law) have to ask, what were you, a knowing young woman, doing lying on his bed, if you did not expect him to take it as an invitation?
Irma is saying that, as a woman who’s had sex before (okay, we’ll accept that assumption), she should have known better than to go into a man’s room, alone, and lie on his bed. She should have known that this would be seen as sending out a signal saying ‘you can have me.’ She should have known that all men are ignorant and stupid, and would see this as an invitation. She should have known that this would end in sex.
This is insulting to men and women. It implies that all men are idiots or worse, all rapists, who when presented with a woman asleep (or pretending to be asleep) on their bed, they take this as an ‘invitation’ for sex, whether consenting or not.
Do you really believe that? What kind of previous sexual experiences does Irma think this woman has had to make her have such a bizarre view of relationships? Male reader – are you insulted? You should be. Female reader – have you ever lay down on a man’s bed? For whatever reason you did so – to cuddle, to kiss, to talk, to relax, to hold each other, to chat to a friend – Irma is, in effect, telling you that you were sending out ‘fuck me’ signals. Impressed?
When I first read the writer’s question, the situation immediately reminded me of when I was at university. People would be in and out of each others rooms all the time, lying on the floor, lying on beds, chatting, sleeping over. Men and women slept together without necessarily having sex. That’s just what happened. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing. This may have been what was happening in the woman’s sitaution. Should she be condemned for it?
Of course, some men are rapists, and they are undeniably dangerous. I am not trying to deny the existence of male rapists. But to condemn a woman for simply being alone in someone’s room and lying on a bed, telling her she should have known that this would happen, is ludicrous. “What were you doing, ” Irma asks, “if you did not expect him to take it as an invitation?” Irma asks. She seems to imply that the writer was asking for it. That she really wanted it. “What were you doing… if you did not expect him to take it as an invitation?” As if there could never be another reason for lying on a bed.
As another member of the mailing list, Britta, said; “The woman is frozen, clothed, face down, unresponsive? That’s what Irma is calling an “invitation” for sex?”
And remember, this is Cosmopolitan here, the magazine for modern independent women, telling us that we should never be alone with a man and never, ever, ever, lie on his bed, unless we expect to be raped in return. If we lie on a bed, we are prick teases and deserve all we get. If we are raped, it is our fault. We are ‘responsible.’ Cosmopolitan! Talk about confused messages.
Unless he drugged you or you were desperately ill, you are responsible for yourself.
It seems Irma Kurtz turned into Camille Paglia overnight.
Irma would say that she is living in the real world. That it is sometimes dangerous to be a woman, and that going into a man’s room alone is putting yourself into a dangerous situation, and that you are stupid for doing so. Therefore, you are responsible for what happened to you.
I agree that as women, we face dangers. It is sensible not to walk down a dark alley in the middle of the night. It is sensible not to walk down Oxford Street with your handbag half open. Of course we need to be aware and take precautions to ensure that we don’t get into dangerous situations in the first place.
But this does not detract from the fact of what happened. If a house without a burglar alarm is robbed, do we treat the thieves more leniently because the owner of the house was ‘asking for it’? There seems to be this thing with rape cases where the woman still bears some or all of the responsibility for what happened to her, and is treated as if she were the guilty one. Compare Irma’s response with these comments made by judges in the past (which I have taken from the book Misogynies by Joan Smith):
In January 1988, a judge said that a twelve-year-old girl who had been raped has acted foolishly. Ian Kenworthy, nineteen, appeared before Lincoln High Court charged with raping the girl after she went back to his bed-sit for a cup of coffee. Sentencing him to three years’ youth custody, Mr Justice John Evans said: ‘It was foolish of her to go.’ He remarked: ‘In other days, you would have said she was asking for trouble.’ [my italics]
In January 1988 a motorist called John Allen was convicted of raping a seventeen-year-old girl who hitched a lift with him after finding herself stranded after a party. Fining Allwn a paltry £2,000 instead of gaoling him, Judge Bertrand Richards observed: ‘The victim was guilty of a great deal of contributory negligence.’ [my italics]
I am hard pressed to tell the difference.
And still, all this woman did was pretend to be asleep on a guy’s bed, someone she knew, someone she’d ‘fooled around with’ previously and nothing bad had happened then. How could she have predicted what would happen? She should not be told it was her fault.
The other message I am getting from Irma’s reply is that there are ‘real’ rapes on the one hand, and unfortunate incidents on the other. This is another myth about rape that’s been around for a long time. ‘Real’ rapes are done by strangers, the women are physically beaten or attacked, they are bruised and bleeding. They are done at knifepoint, by a stalker, by an unknown assailant on a dark street. This is what people generally think of when they think of rape.
But the fact is, the majority of rapes do not occur like this. The majority of rapes are done by people known to the woman. If you are too scared to fight back and go along with it out of fear, isn’t it rape? If you are raped, but weren’t “drugged or desperately ill”, was it your fault? It doesn’t depend on who did the rape, whether a complete stranger or your husband. If he forced sex on you, it was still rape. It doesn’t matter whether you were bruised and bleeding or if there wasn’t a scratch on you; it was still rape. It doesn’t matter if you felt completely devastated or whether you dusted yourself off and kept going; it was still rape. It doesn’t matter whether you took it to court or decided to try to live through it; it was still rape. Rape is sex without consent. It is that simple.
Women are confused about this. They are unsure about whether they were raped or not. They are confused. This letter is an example of this. Replies like Irma’s add to the confusion, the idea that there are ‘real’ rapes on the one hand, and ‘unfortunate incidents’ on the other, the idea that as it wasn’t a ‘real’ rape, the writer should just get over it. Irma doesn’t seem to be taking the woman’s feelings seriously. She was raped, and she is upset about it. She needs help, not condemnation. Because the writer has had sex before, because she was alone in a man’s room, it’s nothing to get upset about. As Irma says, “the best thing you can do is learn from it.”
In Irma’s reply, I am also getting overtones of an argument I have heard before, namely from Lord Abernethy. He was a Scottish judge who just this year, cleared a defendant in a rape case, ruling that rape was only rape if force could be shown to be used, and that just saying ‘no’ was not enough. He said: “To have sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent in itself if not rape”
As Charlotte from the mailing list commented; “So, within the law, a woman is required to get herself beaten up as well as raped?”
If she wants to be believed, if she wants to be treated seriously, if she wants her concerns addressed, maybe, sadly, yes. And Irma Kurtz, respected agony aunt in a hugely popular women’s magazine, seems to be implying the same thing.
If you cannot say, hand-on-heart, you have absolutely no responsibility for this unfortunate event, I’m afraid the best thing you can do, is learn from it. If a woman goes alone to a man’s room and lies down on his bed, it will not generally be seen as an innocent act.
As I have argued above, I disagree strongly that being in a man’s room and lying on a bed is an ‘invitation’ for sex. What about lying on a bed to kiss and cuddle and nothing more? What about lying there having a conversation? What about just going to sleep cozily in each others arms? Are we supposed to believe that men are all evil bastards who’ll misinterpret all we do?
I don’t believe all this crap about misunderstanding ‘signals’ and ‘signs’ and it not being clear if the woman if consenting or not. It should be blatantly obvious to any man with a heart if he makes a move and she doesn’t want it. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t say anything. Has she frozen? Does she look scared? Is she smiling? Have you even asked? If they hadn’t had sex before, it is acceptable for a man to just go ahead without checking first whether it’s okay? No, it’s not.
Irma wants the writer to stop focusing on the appalling arrogance of the man who did this to her, and start blaming herself. Irma wants her to ruefully shake her head and think, well, yes, I was really to blame, wasn’t I? I lay on a man’s bed. I was alone in a man’s room. Oh dear, stupid old me. As if women don’t blame themselves enough! It’s like someone who’s been mugged or punched, thinking well, yes, I was walking down the street alone, so perhaps it’s my fault. Well, I did criticise him that time, so it’s my fault he beat me up. If we thought like this all the time, blaming ourselves as Irma wants us to do, we’d never leave the house. Is it any wonder that the majority of agoraphobics are women?
The weirdest thing is, in a reply to a different reader on the same agony page, Irma tells a woman whose boyfriend had sexual problems: “Please don’t cultivate the great feminine weakness for self-blame in these situations.” So what are we supposed to take from that? If your boyfriend can’t get it up, don’t blame youself, but if you were raped, do?
I maintain that it is our right, as human beings, (and I include men in this) not to be forced into anything we do not want to do. If we are walking down the street alone, we have a right not to be attacked. If we go out on a date, we have a right not to be raped. We have a right to wear short skirts, to have previous sexual experiences, to wear makeup without it being thought that we were asking for it. I maintain that our right is to have sex when and how we want.
It’s absolutely unbelievable that we still have to reiterate these basic concepts in this day and age. But it seems some people still don’t get it. So let’s reiterate:
A woman can enter a man’s house, his room, even his bed, and still have a right not to be forced into sexual intercourse. Irma would probably say that by doing this a woman is leading a man on, is asking for it, is giving an invitation. It depends on the situation, and communication is the key. But the fact remains that even if a woman thought she wanted sex, even told him so, and then for whatever reason, wants to back down at the last minute, she has a right to do so. So does a man.
What if you agreed to go on a bungee jump and got to the top and then decided you really didn’t want to? Would the instructor be justified in shoving you off the bridge? What if you were walking down the aisle and realised it would be totally wrong to marry the man. Would the groom be justified in physically forcing you down to the altar and making you go through with it against your will? Obviously it would be better if it hadn’t got that far. But of course it isn’t okay, even in these situations when an express promise of something has been given. So why do we think it is okay when it comes to sex, even in situations when consent has not been expressly given?
The idea seems to remain that men are uncontrollable animals, driven by wild sexual urges that cannot be controlled, and they will attack (i.e. rape) if provoked. It’s almost thought of as an instinct. Recent research published in the New Scientist suggested that rapists are attracted by ‘unconscious signals’ that ovulating women send out. Like the Incredible Hulk, they are overtaken by urges they simply cannot control. When alone with a woman in a room, they will attempt to mate with her. They are overtaken – they just can’t stop themselves. They’re not really responsible for their actions, because they are driven wild by the sexual signals supposedly given off by the woman.
Yet again, it’s not the rapist’s fault, it is the woman’s fault. This harks back to medieval times when women were seen as the corrupters of men. It continues today in the Taliban regime, where women are forced to wear Burqas covering their whole body, to avoid laughter, to even make a sound whilst walking; otherwise the men will be corrupted.
This way of thinking ignores the fact that rape is generally not about sexual gratification. It has deeper, more complex causes involving power, hatred, and control.
It is dangerous and patronising to think about men this way. It excuses atrocities. It demeans men and women. In an age where only 7.5% of reported rapists get convicted – and that’s only the reported rapes, mind you; in an age where a lawyer can use previous sexual experiences, clothing, abortions, the way you dance in a nightclub, and more irrelevant facts about you to defend your rapist, I feel it is important that magazines like Cosmopolitan do not compound matters by repeating all the old garbage, all the old myths about rape that we have been trying to lay to rest.
So how would I have advised the young woman?
First of all, and I would have thought this would have been obvious, I would have included contact details for rape organisations, helplines, counselling, etc., such as Rape Crisis. Irma did not give any such details or even mention that such things exist. It’s almost as if one tiny paragraph of her advice should be enough, now the woman should get over it. I’m still amazed that this information wasn’t given. All it took was one phone number to be printed. What if some of the readers of Cosmo who’ve been raped were reading it? They need to be told where to get help.
Secondly, Irma does not mention possible pregnancy, or STD’s. If the man did not use a condom she needs to be checked out.
Should she go to the law? I would hesitate to give a yes or no answer. I would say that it is her decision and she needs to take lots of advice, possibly from a rape support organisation. I would point out that it could be a difficult and painful process, but that if she feels it is the right thing to do after seeking advice, this should not stop her.
Was she raped? I would say yes. In an ideal world, she could have screamed, thrown the idiot off the bed and got the hell out of there. But for whatever reason, she didn’t. It seems she was too frightened. In an ideal world, instead of pretending to be asleep she could have said to him, ‘Look, I’m a bit tired and not in the mood, do you mind if we just cuddle?’ But this is not the time for recriminations and making her feel even worse. Maybe she is young, shy, inexperienced, uncomfortable expressing herself. How many young women are given the skills to express themselves clearly when it comes to sex and relationships? We are almost expected to read each others minds when it comes to sex. Young women need to be given these skills. The fact that this woman could not do this, this time, does not mean she was ‘responsible’ for the rape.
So, if I were the Agony Aunt, I would tell her that nobody has the right to force sex on her. This is never, ever, acceptable. If she is in this situation again, she should grit her teeth and speak out, and fight back if necessary. To do this, she may need to be trained in self-assertion and confidence. It would also be useful to get some self-defence training too. I would give contact details for both of those.
Let the lesson remain: you’re worth more than this – never let it happen again.
Yes, the writer is worth more than this. She also worth more than Irma’s Kurtz’s advice.
Irma wasted the small paragraph she had by focusing on completely the wrong issues, and making the writer feel worse instead of helping her feel better. I think I know why Irma did it this way; she did it to keep up her reputation for being ‘frank’ and ‘brusque’. It’s fair enough to have that style of writing, but at what expense? I believe she failed the young woman who wrote to her and dealt with it in the wrong way.
As feminists, as women, as human beings, we should not let these outdated opinions about rape creep back in to our consciousness.
I have sent a copy of this article to Cosmopolitan to give them an opportunity to respond.
Thanks to Charlotte and Britta for input and comments.
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