My New Band Is: Someone You Know
Sexual assault reporting in the newsroom, with an important disclosure
[I’m afraid this newsletter is not at all funny, and I know that’s part of the reason some of you subscribe because you’ve told me that. But it’s important—or important to me, anyway, so bear with me. Also, a trigger warning, for those who may need it: this is about sexual assault.]
Today Politico reported that there was some conflict inside The Washington Post newsroom because in a large employee Zoom town hall recently, reporter Felicia Sonmez expressed disappointment that newsroom management didn’t stand by her after she received harassment and serious threats after Tweeting that the late Kobe Bryant had been accused of rape. The Tweet was not inaccurate, but the WaPo responded to backlash to it by suspending Sonmez and did nothing to address the threats she received.
To their credit, they reversed the decision after many of Sonmez’s colleagues voiced opposition to it. But Sonmez had already been removed from stories involving sexual assault, beginning in the summer of 2018, on the basis that she had experienced assault herself—and that ban continued.
Management’s argument, as I understand it, was that Sonmez had talked publicly about her own experience with sexual assault, and somehow that compromised her objectivity. She had also (per the link above) received some pushback from women I think of as #MeToo skeptical—inclined to give the men more benefit of the doubt than the women, sometimes because they consider the men peers in a way that they don’t the women.
There are things about this situation that are particular to Sonmez, but two things that feel very familiar and universal to me: One is that Sonmez’s managers consider her story extraordinary, and by extension, they also believe that it’s an experience that’s so traumatic and unusual that it’s an inherent conflict if she covers anything related to it as a journalist.
I’m sure they also don’t like that Sonmez has criticized their reaction publicly, but let’s take at face value their supposed objections to having her cover these things: they think she cannot separate her personal story from that of potential victims in sexual misconduct stories.
Here’s the problem: whether the (mostly male) decision makers at the WaPo understand it or not, many of the women in the newsroom have similar stories. (Statistically speaking, some of the men in the newsroom have similar stories, too.) None of them have incentives to talk about it, and most people don’t want to.
But sexual assault is not an extraordinary experience, at least not in the sense that it’s rare. It’s a kind of trauma, like growing up in extreme poverty, that people tend to hide. Not because they did anything wrong, but because it’s stigmatized. The only difference between Felicia Sonmez and many of her colleagues in this respect is that she’s been public about it.
Most of us only talk about these things with the people closest to us. Many of us never talk about it at all.
The contours of sexual assault
Nearly every woman I know has a sexual assault story, and the stories usually follow a similar cadence: he was someone she knew, but not well. She generally felt safe in the environment, and had no reason to believe that she wouldn’t be. She is assaulted because she is there and he is there and no one else is, and that gives him cover. Sometimes he thinks he’s doing nothing wrong because he’s been taught that she deserves it, or that this is just what men do, or that anything short of knocking him unconscious is technically consent.
My worst assault happened in college. It’s a cliche: frat party, lots of booze, guy I know, but not well, I am 19 or 20, never really drank in high school so I sometimes get hammered in college because I haven’t yet learned how to drink like an adult, or I try to match people twice my size who can drink a lot more than I can and feel it less. People are in and out of the rooms in the frat house, which is not unusual. We talk at the party and drift into his room, which is near the common room. Other people do, too. In and out of the room. The door is open.
Then the door is closed. And he’s kissing me. I’m not sure I want to kiss him, but as I’m trying to decide, he’s pulling me onto the bed, and then pulling at my clothes, pulling some of them off. It’s warm in North Carolina and there aren’t that many layers. I’m trying to readjust them, put them back on, but clumsily, unsuccessfully. Then he’s on top of me, and I tell him to stop. I use the literal word stop, but I try not to sound angry. I’m not sure what I’m afraid he’ll do, but I’ve been called a bitch and worse before for politely rejecting a guy and I know not everybody takes rejection well. I try to push him off. He ignores it, and I can barely budge him. He’s bigger than I am, because nearly everyone is. I’m 5’1”, 105 pounds. C’mon, he laughs. But he looks irritated. I don’t want to make him angry, so I tell him I have to go; I have to meet someone (I don’t have to meet someone). At this point his hands are on me, everywhere, and then in me, and it’s clear that he doesn’t intend to let me leave. Please, I say. I really have to go. I’m also drunk and tired, and I can’t extract myself.
Eventually I just let him do what he wants because I can’t fight him, and because I’m afraid to really fight him, hit him or anything like that, scream. I just want it to be over. And it is, mercifully soon. I tell myself later that it was dumb hookup sex because i didn’t have bruises from it, because I wasn’t bleeding, because technically I could have, I guess, bitten him, or kicked him in the balls. Done something besides tell him no, emphatically. Whatever women do in Tarantino movies. But in the moment, I can barely move. And when it’s over I messily put my clothes back on and stumble back to my dorm room.
I don’t talk about it until much later with friends, and I don’t report it. I’ve seen what happens when women report sexual assault at my college: nothing. Women get their sexual history litigated on some kind of administrative panel and nothing ever happens to the men, especially if their parents are wealthy and have an army of lawyers. My parents are not wealthy. I am on a small country’s GDP’s worth of financial aid at a very expensive school where less than a fifth of the student body is on any financial aid at all. So I just shut up about it and loathe myself for being drunk at the party even though I’d been drunk before and since, plenty of times alone with men, and this did not happen—and even though I should be able to be alone, drunk with men, and not worry that it will. Girlfriends of mine have similar experiences. They don’t report it, either.
I graduate and never see that guy again. He’s not on Facebook and I’m glad he’s not, because i’m afraid he’ll send me a friend request, and it will just loom there. I don’t think this experience was memorable for him in the way that it was for me. I never confronted him about it afterwards. In his mind, it probably wasn’t rape because I didn’t punch him in the face. I didn’t go to the police. He probably has a nice family in the suburbs now, a well paying white collar job. He does not think about me at all.
As a post-college adult, I’ve been groped, touched, in ways I didn’t consent to, particularly at bars, parties, on the subway a couple of times. I have removed the hands of strangers from my ass many times at clubs, and that’s not even why I hate clubs. These instances barely register.
One does: My first or second year of living in New York, I was walking home around sunset and along the edge of a small park near Union Square. There wasn’t anyone else on that stretch of sidewalk, except a guy walking toward me, though there were people at a distance. The guy was tall, had longish brown hair, was probably in his 40s, did not seem out of the ordinary, maybe a little hipster-y. Just as I was walking by, he reached out and grabbed both of my breasts. And then he sprinted away. I stood there stunned, because i couldn’t believe it had happened, in broad daylight. My initial reaction wasn’t fear, either; it was anger. I looked behind me and he was a block away at that point, but my first impulse was to run after him and try to physically beat the shit out of him, even though I’ve never so much as thrown a punch at anyone. Ever. (Violence, for me, is being extraordinarily condescending on Twitter.) And in that situation, I didn’t care that he was much bigger than I was. It was a kind of animal rage.
But whatever part of my brain that’s dedicated to self-preservation prevailed in the moment, and instead I just continued home. I didn’t report that one either, but mostly because it took me a good day or two to even register that I’d been sexually assaulted and then, I figured, there wasn’t much point. This is a big city, I thought. This happens all the time. The price of being around millions of people all the time is that one of them will eventually grope you. And what am I expecting, that the NYPD will bring out the sketch artist, and produce a composite of a guy who looks like a more buttoned down Kid Rock? No. So I just tried to forget about it.
When I think about what those experiences did to me, they were different in quality. The first assault felt like much more of a violation, in part because it was, but mostly because i was humiliated by it and angry at myself, trying to figure out what I should have done differently. Not go to the party? Not drink so much? Not go into any of the rooms? I still had a class with the guy. I spent the rest of the school year avoiding him and trying not to make eye contact.
The boob grabber, as I’ve come to think of him, just made me angry. He did it because he knew he’d get away with it, even in busy Manhattan, before dark. There is no way to avoid a guy like that. (Don’t live in New York City, you might be thinking! But men like that are everywhere, including my tiny hometown in the rural South. You can’t really escape them.)
Later I would joke about it when it came up with friends. “Why would he grab my boobs,” I’d say, pointing to my relatively flat chest. “Mine are barely detectable.”
But that’s not what it was about, of course.
Experiences like these are invisible to many men, including, I would wager, the largely male management of The Washington Post. (They would argue that masthead-wise, there are a lot of women in leadership. And that’s true. But the masthead rarely reveals the power structure. That’s determined by who gets to make the final decisions.)
This obliviousness is partly a function of the fact that men rarely witness assault themselves because these things usually happen when a woman is alone, or alone enough. Men only see them when they’re the perpetrators.
My husband asked me a couple of years ago if I’d ever experienced street harassment, and I laughed. “Of course,” I said. “Who doesn’t?” He replied that he’d never seen it happen with me or with any of his exes or female friends. “I know you haven’t,” I said, “because women don’t get harassed when they’re with men. The cat-callers don’t want to get punched in the face, and they think there’s always a chance that you might punch them in the face. They never worry that I might punch them in the face.” Then he got it.
Everyone is affected by sexual assault differently. I think I’ve been less traumatized by it than most of the people I know who’ve experienced it, and sometimes I wonder if that’s some other kind of dysfunction. (If it hasn’t irrevocably fucked me up, is it really sexual assault?) It never put me off of sex in any way, I’ve never had flashbacks to it, and I don’t think it made me trust men in general less. Ironically, my longest running and deepest friendships from college are almost all men. What happened to me is something I think about when something related comes up, and the dominant emotion I still feel is humiliation, not fear.
It could be worse, is what I’m saying.
I’ve both assigned and reported out sexual assault stories in my capacity as an editor and journalist. They’re exceedingly hard to do because there are rarely witnesses except the two people involved and corroboration is more complicated. But it was easy to separate myself because no two sexual assault stories are alike and trauma does not inherently make a journalist over-identify with a subject or source who has experienced similar trauma. Plenty of reporters grow up in poverty and cover income equality. Many have experienced racism and cover race. The reason why the (largely male management) of the newsroom seems to think this is different is because they think sexual assault is an extraordinary experience, and unfortunately, it is not.
They may also think, either overtly or to themselves, or even subconsciously, that women are less capable of controlling their emotions and dealing with this kind of trauma. I would argue that if anything, women are more aware of the need to control and monitor our emotions because we’re more harshly evaluated for anything that might present as anger or distress.
If it were a particular vector for out-of-control female emotional impropriety in the workplace, you’d see it all the time: women enraged about their experiences and unable to do their jobs. You’d see it all the time because it’s a common experience.
Anecdotally, nearly every woman I know who’s lived alone for any period of time and works outside the home has been sexually assaulted, and not, in my opinion, because they are taking any particular risks. They just encounter more people in their everyday lives, often have a social life that does not revolve exclusively or solely around immediate family, and work exposes them to even more people. This presents more opportunities. The math works against them.
Some people were assaulted in college, like I was, because sexual assault on campus is a problem generally—not because the campuses are actively facilitating it, but because it’s the first time 18 and 19 year olds are away from adult supervision and many of them have been taught nothing meaningful by adults in their lives about consent. In many cases, they haven’t even been taught about sex because sex ed programs are stigmatized or non-existent. **
Women talk about these things among ourselves. But it’s not something that we tend to talk about publicly. (Who talks publicly about their sexual experiences, good or horrible, as a matter of course?) And women journalists are not going to tell their editors they were sexually assaulted before they cover a story that involves sexual assault, because frankly, it’s none of their editor’s business and it is not journalistically compromising.
That Felicia Sonmez made her story public is an anomaly. That she alleges she was sexually assaulted is not.
Sexual assault is incredibly common, and still heavily stigmatized. I know there are people who will read what I wrote above about my own rape—and that’s what it was—and judge me for drinking, or being at a frat party, or being alone in a room with a guy. But the bottom line is I told him no, repeatedly. He did not stop. That I did not scream, or body slam him like a professional wrestler, does not mean I fundamentally consented on some level.
It took me a long time to actually use the word rape to myself because I’d internalized the terrible TV narrative we have about rape in America: that it’s something that only happens when a stranger drags you into a dark alley and threatens to kill you. The metropolitan boob grabber I encountered is closer to what most people with no experience of rape think a rapist is like.
And in this narrative, if you survive the back alley assault, it traumatizes you for life, beyond all recognition. But most of the time it’s someone you know, and you just can’t get away. Sometimes you just sort of live with it and don’t think about it very much. It is just something that happened to you, and it does not seem extraordinary because it’s happened to most of your closest friends, too. Sometimes it’s even someone you love, and that makes it harder to reconcile, all the way around.
It’s astoundingly, horribly common. No assault survivor at The Washington Post is obligated to disclose their sexual assault or any personal trauma they have, but if having an experience with sexual assault is disqualifying for women who are doing related reporting, I would bet that most of the women in the WaPo newsroom would be disqualified and their male colleagues would be surprised by that fact.
[Recurring Disclosure Feature, this one also not funny, but relevant: I write opinion pieces for The Washington Post pretty regularly. My editors there are wonderful, and I’ve said that before in public, so this is not some kind of hedge. And to be fair, what I’m talking about is not a structural newsroom dynamic unique to the Washington Post. You can find it in any newsroom where the people making decisions about how to cover sexual assault stories are the least likely to have experienced it themselves.]
** (A digression: This was especially true where I grew up. Evangelical parents often thought they’d keep their teenagers from having premarital sex by… never telling them about it. This did not work, for obvious reasons. We all learned about sex in third grade because the child with the most forbidden knowledge will inevitably disseminate it to all of the other children. This gives the child with the forbidden knowledge power, and in many cases, the child is the Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, and is also the first child to deploy the word “fuck” in front of a teacher.)