Richard Cohen and Rape Culture 

What’s worse than a twerk? A jerk!

Miley Cyrus doesn't cause rape. Rapists cause rape.

A couple weeks back, the Flyer published a Viewpoint by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in which the author essentially blamed rape culture on women expressing their sexuality, à la Miley Cyrus' twerking performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

click to enlarge Richard Cohen
  • Richard Cohen

Writes Cohen, "But let me also suggest that acts such as hers not only objectify women but debase them. They encourage a teenage culture that has set the women's movement back on its heels. What is being celebrated is not sexuality but sexual exploitation, a mean casualness that deprives intimacy of all intimacy."

And this excerpt came after he wasted at least 500 words blaming the Steubenville rape case on "a teenage culture that was stupid, dirty, and so incredibly and obliviously misogynistic." In Cohen's mind, it was apparently a teen culture influenced by pop artists who proudly (albeit somewhat clumsily) twerk.

The infamous rape case involved football players from a high school in Steubenville, Ohio, who, after drinking all night at a party, inserted their fingers into the vagina of a drunk, passed-out girl, all the while bragging on Twitter, slut-shaming her on YouTube, and Instagramming disturbing pictures of her being carried by the wrists and ankles, her head hanging loosely and her hair dragging on the floor. The girl has no memory of what happened to her.

A recent piece in The New Yorker, which Cohen cites in his piece, made the case that media and blog reports of the incident, some of which claimed the girl was gang-raped, may have been overblown. The investigation revealed the football players did not have full-on intercourse with the girl. But to hear Cohen tell it, the girl was simply "manhandled." And somehow, that incident happened because teenage culture debases women.

Penetrating the girl in any way is more than manhandling. It is a sexual assault. It had nothing to do with pop stars and everything to do with young men who felt entitled to use and abuse a young woman for their own pleasure.

Why those young men made the decisions to violate that girl, I can't say. But rape or any sort of unwanted sexual advance is never, ever something a woman (or her teenage culture) asks for, as Cohen's column would suggest.

I'll admit that Miley's decision to wear a flesh-colored bikini and rub her business all over Robin Thicke at the VMAs was embarrassing but not because, as Cohen writes, it "set the women's movement back on its heels." The performance was awkward and poorly executed (had Lady Gaga done the same thing, it likely would have gone over more smoothly), but it did nothing to undo the hard work of feminists past.

And it certainly did nothing to encourage or make light of rape among teenage fans. How one can look at Miley's tongue-wagging, butt-shaking performance and think "rape" is beyond me. Women displaying their sexuality, no matter how crudely, is not a cry for rape, and the fact that Cohen would go there just shows how much of a misogynist he really is.

A woman should never be blamed for inviting rape, or in Miley's case, blamed for setting the women's lib movement back so far as to make it okay for a man to have his way with an innocent, drunk girl.

If a teenage culture that makes light of rape even exists, and I don't believe it does, it's not the fault of a style of dancing. It's the fault of young men who think it's okay to fondle and photograph an unconscious woman who has no idea what's being done to her. The football players involved in the Steubenville case came from a small town where the high school football team was glorified and aggrandized to the point where its stars were celebrities who felt they could do no wrong.

The problem likely lies in a culture (not just a teen culture, mind you, but one perpetuated by adults) that focuses more on high school athletics than academics and, in turn, teaches men from a very young age that so long as you're popular and athletic, you can get away with anything.

Cohen blaming the degeneration of teen culture on Miley Cyrus is no different from his parents' generation blaming the collapse of morality on Elvis' iconic hip swiveling. But wait, Elvis was a man. So I'm sure Cohen wouldn't agree with that.

Bianca Phillips is a Flyer associate editor.

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