The background to this story is a vast and tentacled one*, about the fifteen (so far) women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault at some point of his long acting career. One of those women, Joan Tarshis, was interviewed by Don Lemon about her experiences. The transcript:
LEMON: Can I ask you this, because -- and please, I don't mean to be crude, OK?
LEMON: Because I know some of you -- and you said this last night, that he -- you lied to him and said "I have an infection, and if you rape me, or if you do -- if you have intercourse with me, then you will probably get it and give it to your wife."
LEMON: And you said he made you perform oral sex.
LEMON: You -- you know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn't want to do it.
TARSHIS: Oh. Um, I was kind of stoned at the time, and quite honestly, that didn't even enter my mind. Now I wish it would have.
LEMON: Right. Meaning the using of the teeth, right?
TARSHIS: Yes, that's what I'm thinking you're --
LEMON: As a weapon.
TARSHIS: Yeah, I didn't even think of it.
LEMON: Biting. So, um --
LEMON: Yes. I had to ask. I mean, it is, yeah.
TARSHIS: Yes. No, it didn't cross my mind.On one level Lemon asks one of those questions which are commonly asked of people who come forward only a long time after an alleged sexual assault: Why didn't you go to the police then? Why didn't you resist or resist more? Why did you go out with him (or ended up alone with him) in the first place?
Some ask those questions because they wish to ascertain (from the answers) the truthfulness of the allegations or because they wish to give the person interviewed a chance to explain her or his reasons for staying silent such a long time. Some ask those questions as a form of victim-blaming, and some appear just clueless.
I think Don Lemon falls into that last category, though I'm willing to put him into all the categories if he so wishes. But it's clueless to suggest that a woman in those circumstances should bite the man's penis, perhaps to bite it off (thus causing him potentially to bleed to death).
Consider the circumstances: You are alone with a man larger and stronger than you, a man much more powerful and famous than you, and you are told to escalate the situation by biting his penis. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot could go wrong, both immediately (risk of physical violence increases, someone might die) and in the longer-run (a possible court case about excess use of force in self defense, combined with trying to prove the sexual assault in the first place (so that it is just excess force in self defense, not in an attack), a probable end to one's current career plans, stigmatization for life if the case becomes public). Indeed, the circumstances in which biting-the-penis results in a happy ending for the victim are extremely improbable.
I can't believe I actually wrote the above paragraph! But then Lemon's comments would have seemed pretty incredible a few days ago.
*Even vaster if you set it into the framework shared by Jhian Ghomeshi, a Canadian television celebrity who has recently been accused of hitting and choking women he dated. Ghomeshi's defense is that he was acting the sadist's role in a fully consenting sado-masochistic relationship. The women who have come forward say that they were not asked for consent and did not consent.
That larger framework is about more questions: The power of the powerful, the pitfalls of power, the differences and similarities between those cases and the alleged or proven sexual and/or violent assault cases by less powerful individuals.
The imbalance of power in the Cosby and Ghomeshi cases has received shorter shrift than it deserves. It doesn't only affect the initial settings of the alleged acts but the likely consequences of reporting the acts to the authorities.