The Feminist Response to Dan Rottenberg’s Rape-Victim Blaming

Update: After this post was published, Dan Rottenberg issued a no-caveats apology at Broad Street Review.

Just when we thought the absurd victim-blaming over Lara Logan’s brutal rape in Egypt couldn’t get worse–some blamed her for past relationships, her good looks and even for being in Egypt in the first place–writer Dan Rottenberg published a column on the small website Philadelphia Broad Street Review (BSR) titled “Male Sex Abuse and Female Naivete.” It featured a picture of Logan in evening wear, captioned, “What message was the TV journaiist [sic] Lara Logan sending here?”

Alternating between the tone of an angsty preteen (“Earth to liberated women”) and a chaste Mother Superior (“Don’t trust your male friends”), Rottenberg called on women to take “sensible precautions” to avoid sexual assault. “Sensible precautions” such as viewing all men as potential attackers and refusing to undress for a massage. After all, men are biologically predisposed to rape, right? “The human animal–especially the male animal–craves drama as much as food, shelter and clothing. Conquering an unwilling sex partner is about as much drama as a man can find without shooting a gun,” he writes.

Rottenberg’s article drew a loud and angry response. The piece was called “vile” and a “rape apologist’s manifesto.” A number of Philly-area theater companies banned BSR critics from attending their performances. Philadelphia artist Cara Blouin was inspired to pen the short play, “Dan Rottenberg is Thinking about R@ping You: An Educational Presentation,” which was performed at Philadelphia’s Plays and Players Theater. It featured a Rottenberg character leading women through what Blouin calls a “five-step program to avoid sexual assault.” Proceeds from ticket sales benefited SlutWalk.

This past Tuesday, Rottenberg finally published his much-awaited response (he was on vacation in Paris during most of the media firestorm). No surprise, it was equally condescending and largely unapologetic. “It was a perfect hat-trick of arrogance, male privilege and ‘woe is me, people want me to be accountable,’” says Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media and News. Added Pozner, who recently debated Rottenberg on a radio broadcast,

[This is] intentionally sexist coverage that goads people into clicking. It is extremely telling that the first thing out of his mouth was an entreaty for people to go to his website.

Rottenberg’s original piece has not been removed from the web despite the backlash. In fact, he continues to link to it in both his second column and any other related pieces–including the BSR review of “Dan Rottenberg is Thinking of R@ping You.” During his debate with Pozner, Rottenberg referred to himself as a “voice for the voiceless.” His recently posted column reiterates the same thinking, claiming he was merely doing his job as an editor and bringing a new perspective to the conversation.

While Rottenberg’s opinions were just one more spin of the decades-old broken record of victim blaming, they may have given feminists a real opportunity to provoke further dialogue. Alternative paper the Philadelphia Weekly (of which Rottenberg was editor-in-chief in 1981) published an entire issue on rape last week. “There was so much going on, a [column] didn’t seem like enough,” says Weekly writer Tara Murtha, who wrote the paper’s original response to Rottenberg’s column. A recent series of brutal rapes, says Murtha, has made Philadelphia feel like “a war zone.” She was surprised at the number of direct responses she received, with many readers sending personal thanks. “It was kind of shocking that [this] is still considered somehow radical,” Murtha says.

As Rottenberg himself so obnoxiously put it in his self-defense, “the antidote for ‘bad’ ideas is better ideas.” Fortunately, feminists are providing just that.

Photo by Flickr user cascade_of_rant, under license from Creative Commons 2.0.


Christie is a senior Journalism and International Studies major at Northwestern University. Recently returned from a semester in India, she is ready to take on international women's issues and the L.A. public transit system.