Richard Cohen, the Washington Post opinion writer who can usually be counted on to take the dumbest, most odious possible stance on any issue, is, thank God, against gang rape. This is mildly surprising, considering that his previous greatest hits include arguing that New York mayor Bill de Blasio's interracial family activates the "gag reflex" of anyone with "conventional views," arguing the Steubenville rape case was just some light "sexual mistreatment" and calling the racial profiling of Travyon Martin "understandable." (We shudder to think of what he'll do with Darren Wilson's non-indictment.) But in his column published Monday night, Cohen managed to come down firmly against the alleged gang rape of a female student at University of Virginia. A gang rape, he argues, that could have been prevented had there been any "real men" around.
Oh, there it is. We were wondering how Richard Cohen could possibly blow this one, but, bless him, he's managed it.
Cohen writes in his column that the men who allegedly raped 18-year-old "Jackie" at a frat party, a horrifying 2012 incident outlined in a recent Rolling Stone piece, were "not men." Or not the right kind of man, anyway. Not the kind of men, who, Cohen writes, "live by a certain code, who know that rape is repugnant, that gang rape is vile and that so-called men who do these things are criminals." That kind of Man's Man is vanishing, and this, Cohen says, is the result.
Cohen uses the research on serial rapists that Sabrina Rubin Erdely mentions in her Rolling Stone piece to conclude that most men are not, as he puts it, "actual sexual thugs." (True, obviously.) He asks why none of the men at the frat party intervened to help Jackie, stop her assailants, or report the incident afterwards.
Those are all great questions, actually, questions that indicate that, almost despite himself, Richard Cohen is learning something. But then the whole thing careens impressively off the rails and becomes an elegy for the days of the Real Man, the strong, stoical Marlboro Man type who's always courtly to a lady as she swoons her way through the world, handkerchief dangling limply from her hand, moments away from being thrown in front of a speeding train by a mustachioed villain.
"Is this old-fashioned?" Cohen asks. "Have I just geezered my way into irrelevance? Am I going to hear from the gaggle of bloggers circling, like vultures, for the one errant phrase? Will I be told that I just don't get it ? Well, I don't. When I hear President Obama suggest that 1 in 5 college women is a victim of sexual assault, I just don't get it. Who are these creeps who rape? Why do other men put up with such behavior?" He adds, in what is probably meant to be a powerful crescendo:
I know, I know. John Wayne is dead, and Cary Grant, too. Men dress like boys and often act like boys, too. I was a college kid once myself, but some aspects of campus culture I do not quite understand (why would anyone binge-drink to get sick?). But I do know with dead certainty that a rapist is not really a man — and neither is anyone who lets it happen.
It's almost as though Cohen missed the sickening ways that Jackie's rapists used the "real man" trope to egg on one of her attackers when he didn't want to penetrate her, calling him a "pussy" and jeering, "What, she's not hot enough for you?" It's almost as though he's missed years of serious critical discussion about the ways in which the myth of the "real man" harms men and women alike. (Take, for example, the criticisms of Ashton Kutcher's anti-sex trafficking "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" campaign, a meme that surfaced again this year as a kind of manly man stance against the kidnapping of 300 Nigerian girls by militant group Boko Haram. Neither did anything to help sex trafficking victims or kidnapped girls, but it did a lot to reinforce rigid standards of gender conformity: the man as protector, the man as savior, the woman as Mario Kart princess, immobilized in glass, waiting passively for rescue.)
And it's almost as though Cohen has completely forgotten how hard women have had to work throughout his own career to teach him how to be the "right" kind of man. Take the colleague who had to admonish him not to make comments about her body when she wore skirts to the office, or the 23-year-old female aide at the Washington Post who he relentlessly sexually harassed in 1998, engaging her in one-sided conversations about oral sex and telling her to "stand up and turn around," among other things.
When Cohen was pulled aside and chided for that behavior, of course, he behaved like a Real Man, apologizing to the aide and correcting his conduct. And by that we mean that he gave the woman the silent treatment for weeks, and according to the New York Observer's reading of the incident, based on conversations with his friends, felt he had "been the victim of a witch-hunt atmosphere." Post management eventually found that Cohen had engaged in "inappropriate behavior," although not sexual harassment, and moved him to a different office.
It would be a lot easier to accept Richard Cohen as some kind of authority on how men should behave if he'd shown any signs of learning from these embarrassing incidents in his career. If he hadn't, say, mounted a spirited defense of Clarence Thomas not all that long ago, or Roman Polanski more recently. And much as we hate to tell a Real Man what to do, it would also be easier to hear Cohen more distinctly if his head wasn't jammed so frequently and so far up his own ass.
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