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March 19, 2012

Cosmo's "Deadly Decisions" Denounces Victim Blaming, Then Engages In It

We've been slacking off on our Cosmo blogging lately because our subscription expired and we haven't been able to bring ourselves to spend any money to renew it. But I did get my hands on a copy of the February issue recently and there's an article in there that I do want to address.

The article is called "Deadly Decisions: How Smart Women Put Themselves at Risk":
Watching all the recent reports of young women being abducted and murdered probably has you wondering - what can you do to avoid such an awful fate? Former New York sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein pinpoints three choices that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

This is fairly typical of Cosmo - every month there's at least one "scary" article about some new threat that we should all freak out about. This month it even made the cover with the headline "Women and Danger: This Decision Could Cost You Your Life". This one seems to be headed straight for victim blaming territory, first acting like it's breaking news that smart women can be victims too and then implying that it only happens when these women make "deadly" decisions and "put themselves at risk".
The past few years a shocking number of stories have hit the news about bright, savvy young women who have mysteriously disappeared. Most have had tragic endings, with bodies found in dumpsters or shallow graves. In some heartbreaking cases, their remains have not been located.

During my three decades as a prosecutor, I worked on scores of similar abduction cases. One of my goals was to change attitudes that historically blamed victims for their deaths. These were vibrant women with promising lives, and they weren't responsible for their own assault or murder.

Yet there is something to be learned from many of these terrible situations: A mere misstep or poorly thought-out decision can be enough to make you a magnet for danger. That's certainly true for three recent cases that have made national headlines. Pointing out what seem to be errors in judgment on the victim's part is not about holding them responsible for their fate - not blaming them for their victimization - but about showing other women how a seemingly inconsequential action puts them in the sights of a predator.
So she's not trying to blame victims, just showing how their stupid choices led to their victimization. Oh. It's nice that Fairstein is addressing the issue of victim blaming and pointing out how wrong and harmful it can be, but it seems like she's trying to say that it's okay for her to make victim blaming statements because she understands that victim blaming is wrong. Don't worry everyone, it's the good kind of victim blaming!

Deadly Decision: Ditching Your Friends at Night

Kenia Monge, a smart, gorgeous 19-year-old from Denver, was reportedly planning to attend college to become a crime-scene investigator. One night last March, she and her friends headed to a chic dance club in a trendy downtown neighborhood.

Kenia and her girlfriends were partying happily that night. During the evening, she excused herself from their table to go to the restroom. She left her purse, car keys, and phone with them, giving every indication that she planned to return, according to the Denver district attorney's office.

But Kenia never came back, and the next day, she was the focus of a police manhunt. A 31-year-old man named Travis Forbes was questioned by police early on after he left a message on Kenia's cell, picked up by her stepfather, asking if she had gotten home safely after he dropped her off. It took five months for police to gather enough evidence to nail Forbes, who confessed and let them to the grave he dumped Kenia's body into along a Colorado interstate.

What went wrong for this girl who seemed to have everything going for her? The alcohol she drank must have blurred her thinking and led her to make the error that endangered her life: breaking away from her friends and leaving the club with a guy - not Forbes - she'd just met. Minutes later, she was caught on surveillance tapes alone, no longer with the guy she'd left with, wandering between an apartment building and a hotel blocks from the club.
Reading this raised a lot of questions for me. Why did she leave the club but leave all of her stuff behind? Was she actually planning to "ditch" her friends and leave the club, or just stepping outside with a guy to talk or smoke a cigarette or something like that? If she did leave with him, why did she end up breaking away from him just a few minutes later? Is it possible that her drink was drugged? It seems to me like it's pretty unclear what really happened, but Fairstein apparently doesn't see it that way. To her, it's simple: Kenia drank too much, made a stupid mistake, and became a victim.
At one point, she went inside the hotel, used the restroom, and then walked back outside, directly into the path of Travis Forbes. That's when Kenia made a second decision that sealed her fate: accepting a ride from Forbes and getting into his van. Perhaps Kenia felt safe with him, thanks to Forbes's clean-cut appearance and good manners. Maybe she thought it was easier to take him up on his offer than try to figure out how to get back to her friends.
Maybe maybe perhaps, perhaps maybe. Again, the truth is that we don't know exactly what happened, but Fairstein is happy to speculate on why Kenia Monge did what she did that night.
Forbes's confession fills in the blanks on what happened next: Inside his van, Kenia passed out, at which point Forbes made made sexual advances toward her. She scuffled with him upon coming to. He strangled her to death.

Every time I encountered a circumstance like this as a prosecutor, I wanted to turn back the clock so someone could have been with the victim at the moment her vulnerability intersected with a bad guy's opportunity. I wanted to put an arm around her and warn, "You can't get into the car with him. Find your friends. Sober up, and let them take you home."

In every Cosmo article I've written on this subject, I implore friends who go out together to form a buddy system. If someone has had too much to drink, pay special attention to her. Accompany her to the restroom or take her home in a taxi if she wants to leave. Keep tabs on how long she's gone, because if she appears vulnerable to you, she will also be vulnerable to anyone looking to do her harm.
I think it's only natural to wish you could go back and prevent a horrible crime like this from happening. But shouldn't we also be asking why we live in a society where it's considered a "deadly decision" for a woman to walk down a public street by herself? Shouldn't we be asking why Travis Forbes thought it was okay to make sexual advances towards an unconscious woman? Shouldn't we be talking about Forbes at all rather than focusing on what the victim did wrong? Any of those conversations would be more productive than Fairstein repeating the same old "advice" that she admits she's already given many times before.

Deadly Decision: Not Struggling With An Abductor

Just because you don't go clubbing or drink excessively doesn't mean you can't be victimized. Consider the case of Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student kidnapped from outside her Tennessee home last April.
I'm sure Fairstein doesn't think she's blaming victims here but the implication seems to be that if you do go clubbing and/or drink "excessively" that you're 'asking for it'. At the same time, she's pointing out that you can be victimized even if you're in or near your own home, so there's really no magic set of rules that you can find in Cosmo that will keep you protected. But that doesn't stop Fairstein from finding a "deadly decision" to apply to Holly Bobo's case.
Holly, who lived with her family on the edge of a wooded area, was apparently confronted by a man as she approached her car next to her house at 7:30 a.m. Holly's brother Clint, 25, was inside the house at the time; he told investigators he looked out a window and saw her being led into the woods by a man clad in camouflage - not unusual, since it was hunting season. Because Clint couldn't see the man's face, he assumed that it must have been Holly's boyfriend, Drew. But in the driveway about 10 minutes later, Clint found a small pool of blood and called the police. The lunch Holly had packed was later recovered a few miles away in the woods. Holly herself had vanished, possibly abducted by a stranger (at press time, there were no suspects or traces of Holly's remains).

One question I am often asked is if women should struggle with their abductor, whether on a busy street or in a remote area, like the land behind Holly's home. In general, the collective wisdom advises this: You scream or physically fight the attacker the best you can before he completely isolates you from other people. Although every situation is different, after you are isolated, it may be useless to resist, and it can put you in even greater jeopardy by agitating your attacker. However, if there's a chance that people might hear you make a commotion, you should.

From the evidence, it appears that Holly may have battled with her abductor. A neighbor reported hearing a yell from the direction of Holly's home. The blood Clint found suggests that if Holly made an effort to fight, it could have resulted in a serious injury to her. We don't know if Holly's injury then left her unable to struggle or if she made the conscious decision to stop fighting as this predator was taking her father from her home.
Once again the key words are "we don't know", and once again Fairstein doesn't let that stop her from making assumptions. It bothers me that she chose to use Holly as an example of what can happen when you don't struggle with your attacker even though there's evidence to suggest that she may have done just that. It seems like she's trying to make this case fit into her lesson even though there's no way to know if it actually does, and I don't think that's fair to Holly Bobo.
I understand why, at any point, she may have decided to be docile and quiet. I've had victims tell me that because their assailant was armed, they chose not to alert neighbors or family members by screaming for fear that their loved ones would be put in harm's way too. Perhaps Holly was trying to shield Clint from danger.

Victims can also feel a false sense of control when in a familiar environment. Because Holly was still in her yard, she may have thought she could pretend to cooperate then suddenly break free and run back to the house. But again, in general, a victim is better off trying to draw as much attention to herself as possible with people nearby rather than hope she can physically fend off a man likely to be bigger and more powerful.
If Fairstein really wanted to write this type of article, I wish she would have stuck with the stories of victims that she actually spoke to and cases that she actually worked on rather than choosing recent cases that required her to do so much speculating.

Deadly Decision: Storming Off After A Public Fight With Your Guy

A third situation that can put you in danger is a fight with a boyfriend in a public place that results in you and your guy parting ways. Strangers who witness the fight and realize you are alone may now see you as a target for something sinister.

I wish Paula Sladewski, a 26-year-old model and dance from Michigan, had known of this risk. Paula got into a shouting match with her boyfriend, Kevin Klym, at a Miami club. The fight between Paula and Kevin, together for about two years, was so heated that bouncers threw Kevin out. He took a cab back to their South Beach hotel.

Paula stayed, and then the club's cameras caught her leaving hours later with a man walking behind her as she exited to the street. The next morning, when Paula didn't return to their hotel, Kevin reported her missing. Horrifically, her body was found that night, burned beyond recognition, in a smoldering trash bin in another Miami neighborhood. Two years have passed, and police still do not have a suspect. (Kevin is not considered a suspect, nor does Paula's family believe he is responsible, police say.)
First off, we can say that this is another case of the story not quite fitting with Fairstein's chosen list of deadly decisions, since Paula Sladewski technically didn't "storm off" anywhere. She had no control over the bouncer's decision to kick her boyfriend out of the club, and it was her boyfriend who chose to leave, go back to the hotel, and not report Paula missing until the next morning. And yet Fairstein doesn't say that she wishes Paula and Kevin had known the risks. Nope, all of the blame for the bad decision falls on the victim.

Another point to consider is that while Paula's boyfriend is not considered a suspect in her murder, there are many women who are assaulted or killed by their boyfriend or husband or someone else that they know. What "deadly decision" did those women make? Trusting another human being?
What happened after Paula and her boyfriend separated for the night, a split observed by so many people? I've worked on cases in which women who have been assaulted or abducted under similar circumstances admitted that they started flirting with other guys around them as "payback" to the boyfriend or accepted help from a stranger - someone they felt falsely connected to because they'd been at the same party. Maybe a guy Paula flirted with offered to drive her back to the hotel to make up with Kevin, or maybe she thought she could make Kevin jealous by leaving with someone else.

Whatever decisions Paula made in the throes of an emotional and public quarrel with her man, the visible fight and Kevin's expulsion from the club left her vulnerable. Her story is gruesome and tragic, but by sharing it and the stories of other victims, I truly hope it prevents another young woman from making a bad decision that turns her into a target for a monster.
Great, another round of "maybe, maybe, maybe" to finish things off. All we know is that there was a man walking behind Paula when she left the club. There's no proof that she was flirting with anyone or that she intended to go home with another guy, and even if there was that still wouldn't make her murder anyone's fault but her killer's.

I really feel like Kenia, Holly, and Paula deserve better than to be the "what not to do" examples in a pointless article that does nothing for women but serve us the same warmed over safety tips that we've all heard a million times before. Give us a real conversation about victim blaming, slut-shaming, and rape culture and what we can all do to challenge it, or don't bother at all.

Just a few pages after "Deadly Decisions" is "Cosmo Fights Campus Rape", an update on Cosmo's yearlong campaign to improve sexual assault policies on college campuses. I applaud them for partnering with SAFER on this campaign, but I wish they'd realize that engaging in victim blaming in the pages of their magazine does a disservice to the effort, and to women everywhere.

1 comment:

phaydra said...

Awesome post. I also wrote a letter to Cosmo on my blog and I called them out on their always present, scare inducing monthly article that is suppose to help you keep yourself from being raped, killed, or kidnapped.