From Tailhook to Tahrir Square
A woman is suddenly set upon by a mob of aggressive, excited men who tear at her clothes, groping and fondling her as they pass her through the crowd. When the incident comes to light, the woman is blamed for being somewhere she shouldn’t have been and for bringing the assault upon herself.
This is not 2011, it is not Tahrir Square, and the victim is not a female CBS reporter. It’s 1991, it’s the Las Vegas Hilton, and the victim is a female Navy lieutenant. Perhaps most importantly, the crowd of men is not made up of Egyptian protesters, but of U.S. naval aviators and sailors.
In September 1991, the Tailhook Association, a nonprofit group of retired and active naval officers, held its annual convention in Las Vegas. As Lieutenant Paula Coughlin stepped off the elevator of the third floor, she was met by a crowd of more than 200 drunken officers. “I got attacked by a bunch of men that tried to pull my clothes off,” she said. “I fell down to the floor and tried to get out of the hallway, and they wouldn’t let me out. They were trying to pull my underwear off from between my legs.” Lt. Coughlin implored one of the aviators to help her; he responded by grabbing her breasts. When she reported the incident to her superior officer, he replied, “That’s what you get for going down a hallway of a bunch of drunken aviators.” After Lt. Coughlin went public with her story, more than 80 other women came forward with similar stories of being sexually assaulted by the crowd that night. Lt. Coughlin reported being harassed by her Navy colleagues for speaking out, and the media response was similarly harsh. Pundits and late-night comedians trivialized the incident as little more than fraternity antics, and Lt. Coughlin and other women who came forward were criticized for unfairly tarnishing the Navy’s reputation. The response of conservative figures was particularly extreme, denouncing attempts to reform the Navy in the wake of the Tailhook allegations as attempts to “feminize” the military. David Horowitz, in an article for the National Review titled “The Feminist Assault on the Military,” complained that “a drunken party at which crotches were grabbed in a gauntlet ritual ha[s] fueled a national hysteria about ‘sexual harassment’ that is threatening to deconstruct the military.”
Lara Logan, CBS News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, was attacked by a group of as many 200 male protesters while reporting from Tahrir Square in Cairo. The men stripped her of her clothes, beat, slapped, and punched her with their hands and with flag poles. Reports indicate that she was spared further attack by a group of women and guards who moved to protect her. The all-too-predictable victim-blaming and trivialization began almost immediately, and came from individuals of every ideological stripe: Nir Rosen took to Twitter to tell the world that he was “rolling his eyes at all the attention she’ll get.” On her self-named blog, Debbie Schlussel wrote, “So sad, too bad, Lara. No one told her to go there. She knew the risks. … Hope you’re enjoying the revolution, Lara!”
The similarities between what happened to Paula Coughlin and Lara Logan are striking both in terms of the assault itself and the media response. But there is an important difference as well. The aforementioned Schlussel didn’t blame only Logan for the assault; she also blamed Islam: “she should have known what Islam is all about.” Responding to criticism of her statements, Schlussel went further, ridiculing her critics for failing to admit that “THIS. IS. ISLAM. Lara Logan was among the chief cheerleaders of this “revolution” by animals. Now she knows what Islamic revolution is really all about.” Gary Bauer used Logan’s assault to repudiate Nicholas Kristof’s claim that “we are all Egyptians”: “there is ample evidence that millions of Egyptians are sympathetic to the worst elements of radical Islam, including [,] … as the sexual assault of Logan demonstrated, hatred of, and hostility toward, women.” Andrew McCarthy, in an article titled “Who Attacked Lara Logan, and Why?” – in the very same publication in which Horowitz trivialized the sexual assault of Paula Coughlin and deemed the attempt to reform the Navy’s attitudes towards women a threat to national security – first makes the implausible claim that “coverage of the attack has been muted,” and then asserts that what happened to Logan simply doesn’t happen “here”: “it doesn’t happen in Madison. It happens in Egypt. It happened in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country… It happens in Muslim countries and in the Muslim enclaves of Europe and Australia, perpetrated by Islamic supremacists acting on a sense of entitlement derived from their scriptures, fueled by the rage of their jihad, and enabled by the deafening silence of the media.”
In the wake of the assault on Paula Coughlin and the revelation that as many as 83 women in total had been similarly attacked by U.S. military officers during the Tailhook Convention, there were no suggestions, to say nothing of outright assertions, that radical Christianity was responsible for the incident. No pundits went diving into the Bible to find passages declaring women’s inferiority to men (passages that one can assuredly find there, as one can find them in the Koran). One is hard pressed to find claims that responsibility for the attack lay in U.S. cultural norms encouraging violence towards and objectification of women. Statistics on the high rate of sexual assault and harassment of women in the U.S., and the inequalities women face in employment and health rights, were not trotted out as proof that American men manifest hostility and hatred towards women.
It is an obvious, but apparently not obvious enough, truth that those who genuinely care about violence against women care about it all the time, everywhere it happens. They understand that violence against women crosses all borders, all religions, all cultures. We should care deeply about what happened to Lara Logan, and in caring about it we should educate ourselves about the shockingly high rates of sexual harassment in Egypt and explore the possibility that there may be cultural and religious factors that encourage hatred and hostility towards women. And we should likewise care about Paula Coughlin, and interrogate the cultural and religious factors that might be at play in an incident in which close to a hundred women are assaulted by men affiliated with the U.S. military (to say nothing of the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military that continues to this day). The struggle against inequality is poorly served by selective and self-serving outrage.