How CNN turned me into a sex scold

Despite being an advocate for women's sexual power, I ended up on TV wagging my finger over "raunch" culture

Published May 6, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Jaclyn Friedman
Jaclyn Friedman

I didn't recognize the talking head on CNN scolding girls for drinking and having sex. The woman on the television screen looked and sounded a whole lot like me -- in fact, she was me -- but she appeared to be saying things that, as a feminist activist and co-author of "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape," I would never say.

This is what it's like to see yourself quoted out of context and turned into a sock puppet on national TV.

It's not every day I get a call from CNN. Until a few weeks ago, it had happened just once: last fall, when a student at Hofstra University accused fellow students of raping her, and then recanted a few days later. Her accusation hadn't made much of a media ripple, but the withdrawal was suddenly international headline news, and CNN wanted a comment from me to include in its story that afternoon.

Two hours later, a cameraman was setting up lights in my office while I tried to act like this happened all the time. Applying a final layer of makeup, I rehearsed my main talking points: False rape accusations are rare. We don't know that she was lying, just that she withdrew the charges. Rape is an epidemic on college campuses. Why does the media only pay attention when a woman's credibility is called into question?

The interview itself went well enough. I could tell the producer wanted me to say something harsh about the young woman in question, to accuse her of making things worse for "real" victims. But I refused, taking the time to explain that we have no way of knowing whether or not she was a victim, just that she no longer wanted to press charges. As the cameraman packed up, I beamed with pride: I'd just given a thoughtful, thorough, articulate 20-minute interview to CNN, an interview that had the power to shape American opinions about sexual violence. I called my mom, blasted the info via Facebook and Twitter, and waited eagerly to see the clip.

And then, there it was. I was on-screen for the span of exactly one sentence -- a sentence used so entirely out of context it sounded like I had done the exact thing I had spent 20 minutes refusing to do: criticize the young woman at the center of the story. I blamed myself. How could I have been sloppy enough to give them a quote they could use that way? I was crushed, mortified and, more than anything else, I wanted to write that woman -- every woman -- an apology. Whenever we blame a woman for the damage rape does to women, we make it that much easier for rapists to get away with it in the future.

But I decided to keep my mouth shut. After all, it was just one producer, one bad story. I have a message I want to spread, and I wanted CNN to call me again.

A few weeks ago, a different producer from a different CNN show, "American Morning," contacted a colleague of mine about a story they were developing about Ke$ha and the supposedly dangerous and new trend of pop culture encouraging girls to get very drunk and be "raunchy." My colleague couldn't do it, but she sent them to me along with assurances that this producer and reporter team were coming from a feminist place. I jumped at the chance to redeem myself with "the Worldwide Leader in News."

During the interview, I did my best to debunk the frame, insisting that binge drinking isn't just a women's issue, nor is sexual behavior. I also pointed out that none of this is new, and that holding men responsible for violence against women is a heck of a lot more effective and fair than clutching our pearls about girls these days. The reporter seemed genuinely interested in my perspective, if not entirely convinced. The next morning was like Groundhog Day. There I was again: spouting but two sentences and appearing to make the exact point I'd taken great pains to oppose. The transcript reads like so:

[Reporter Carol] Costello: When it comes to binge drinking, experts say, sadly women are up to the challenge. According to Southern Illinois University, in 1996, 33 percent of women admitted to binge drinking or having five drinks in one sitting in the past two weeks. In 2008, that percentage shot up to nearly 41 percent.

Jaclyn Friedman, Editor, "Yes Means Yes": It's a really troubling message.

Costello: That's disturbing to feminist editor Jaclyn Friedman. She says women having fun or making stupid mistakes is one thing, but adopting destructive, raunchy behavior is scary.

Friedman: When it comes to sexual assault, most rapists use alcohol to facilitate sexual assault.

Was I a fool to imagine it would go any differently the second time? Who knows. But in the aftermath of the story, as the feminist Web spleened justified outrage and I tried to express my fury, I kept returning to one thought: I think the producer and reporter had the best of intentions.

Thing is, even media behemoths like CNN are composed of people, most of whom had higher aspirations than to be corporate cogs when they decided on a career in journalism. I believe the reporter and producer I worked with are worried about girls. They want to help parents who're worried about girls. They want girls to be safe. And one more thing is true of them, something we tend to forget when stuff like this happens: They're not just media producers. They're media consumers.

When I think about the mainstream media's victim-blaming, I'm reminded of that old Palmolive ad: You're soaking in it. The "Bad Girls" story, in which young women who drink and are sexual are victims of their own bad decisions and must be educated into safety, and in which male predators are treated as inevitable forces we can do nothing to stop, has been told so many times that it seems not only true, but like the only possible true thing. Most people don't even think of it as a viewpoint, at least no more than they think of gravity as really weighing them down. CNN employees certainly aren't immune to this phenomenon.

But every iteration of the "Don't Bad Girls Know They're in Danger?!? ZOMG!" story makes it harder to overcome all the ones that came before. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of women are raped every year in the U.S. Most of those assaults are never reported, in no small part because victims expect that if they speak up, their behavior, not their attacker's, will be questioned -- and they're right. This often leaves rapists free to find new victims -- an average of six each.

If we're ever going to break these deadly serious victim-blaming assumptions, someone's going to have to figure out how to get an alternative viewpoint represented correctly on CNN. Maybe it will even be me -- I did at least manage to get them to publish a counterpoint on their blog this time around, and I'll probably say yes again if they call. But not without sending them this article first.

By Jaclyn Friedman

Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, performer and the editor of "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape."

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