Don Lemon apologizes for comment to Cosby accuser why she didn't avoid being raped

"You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn't want to do it," Don Lemon told Joan Tarshis, who has accused Bill Cosby of rape.

By Gabrielle Levy

ATLANTA, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- CNN anchor Don Lemon is under fire Wednesday after he asked one of Bill Cosby's accusers why she didn't do more to avoid her rape.

Former actress and music industry publicist Joan Tarshis has accused Cosby of drugging and raping her on two occasions in 1969. Lemon, speaking to Tarshis Tuesday night, wondered why she let herself be forced into performing 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.

(This exchange occurs around 1:45)

CNN has removed that portion of the exchange from the video of the interview on their website.

The reaction on social media was immediate and fierce, accusing Lemon of blaming the victim. Lemon issued an apology on air Wednesday, but not before Twitter raked him over the coals, sending the hashtag #DonLemonReporting into the top trends.

"As a victim myself, I would never want to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape," Lemon said. "If my question struck anyone as insensitive, I'm sorry as that was not my intention."

"Comments like the one that was made last night are really unfortunate," said Tracy Cox, the communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "It adds to the misconception that the victim somehow played a role in the assault."

Lemon's comments were hardly unique, even at CNN. After the teens in the Steubenville High School rape case were convicted, CNN was accused of sympathizing with the rapists over the victims.


"I don't think they're being salacious or sleazy intentionally, but it's disheartening when you hear an anchor on a major news network basically posing the question why," Cox said. "When you ask [the victim] questions of 'Why didn't you do this, why didn't you do that,' that can really imply victim blaming."

The media has become better equipped to address instances of sexual assault, even when someone famous or powerful is accused. Viral videos including one of a woman getting repeatedly catcalled as she walks in Manhattan and the #Yesallwomen campaign sparked after the misogyny-fueled murders at UC Santa Barbara, have been received as positive steps. But other instances, such as the NFL's dishearteningly slow reaction to accusations of assault against its players, shows just how far is yet to go.

Advocacy organizations including the NSVRC and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline, often work with media organizations to teach journalists the best practices for interviewing survivors of sexual assault.

Katherine Hull Fliflet, RAINN's vice president of communications, said there are steps journalists should take -- and more importantly, pitfalls to avoid -- in these interviews.


"It's natural to try to give people solutions, but survivors may have already taken action," she said. "Never question whether a survivor could have averted an assault."

Once the mistake has been made, such as in Lemon's case, it's important for news organizations to recognize their error.

"An apology is in order here," Fliflet said. "More broadly, this is an opportunity for all journalists to really re-evaluate how their covering these crimes."

Those measures help other victims, like Tarshis, feel safe to come forward, even when they're accusing a beloved figure like Cosby, popular Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi or Seventh Heaven actor Stephen Collins.

Victims of assault often say they stayed silent because they feared they would not be believed, especially in high-profile cases, or because their abusers threaten them into staying quiet. Cox said sensitive media coverage of sexual assault issues is crucial, as more victims of assault come forward with their stories.

"With all the media attention, the fact that President Obama has put this issue on the national radar, we're seeing that the tide is slowly turning and that more victims are comfortable coming forward," she said. "They know now they're not alone."


Latest Headlines