News & Politics

Richard Cohen Is a Manly Man, Writes Richard Cohen

The Washington Post columnist misses the point on the University of Virginia's sexual assault problem.


Washington Post nag Richard Cohen just read Rolling Stone’s damning report on rape at the University of Virginia and the school’s systemic inability to adjudicate the crime. Like nearly everyone who’s read Sabrina Rubin Ederly’s story about an an alleged gang rape at a UVA frat house in 2012 and the victim’s struggle to hold her attackers accountable, Cohen came away agahst at the details of what went down in the Phi Kappa Psi house.

Unfortunately for Post readers, Cohen’s prescribed solution in his column Tuesday isn’t much help.

“Where are the men?” he asks. “I am talking about men who 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. I am talking at the moment of the frat boys at the University of Virginia who are accused of raping a young woman. But I am also talking of all those who knew what was happening—at the time or afterward.”

None of these people measure up to Cohen’s standard of manliness, which he describes later on as some kind of cinematic mashup of John Wayne and Cary Grant. None of the dudes at UVA compare to these two, leading Cohen to conclude that he just does not understand what’s happening on campus.

I have been a columnist for many years now. I write on a variety of topics, some of them requiring prodigious amounts of research. But I have been a man all my life, and I don’t have to Google anything about that. And yet I don’t understand what I read about what’s happening on campuses. How can rape thrive? How can a rapist walk to class the next day without other men confronting him? How is the rapist or the witness allowed to feel he has exercised some masculine privilege when, in fact, he has just violated the cardinal rule of masculinity? Be respectful of women.

Except, not even Richard Cohen would live up to Richard Cohen’s expectations, considering a 1998 New York Observer report that the columnist was the subject of a workplace complaint stating that he behaved inappropriately toward a 23-year-old, female editorial aide. While Cohen denied the allegations and said he was the target of a “witch-hunt,” the Post’s management concluded he had contributed to a “hostile working environment.” Obviously, this is not nearly on the level of what Rolling Stone describes going on in Charlottesville, but it would seem to disqualify him from the manly man test.

But Cohen’s larger beef is that he’s frustrated that campus sexual abusers—and people who don’t report such crimes—aren’t easily identifiable in a crowd. “When I hear President Obama suggest that 1 in 5 college women is a victim of sexual assault, I just don’t get it,” he writes. “Who are these creeps who rape? Why do other men put up with such behavior?”

It’s good that Cohen’s outraged by what he read in Rolling Stone. It’s a reaction shared by just about everyone who’s read Ederly’s article, but Cohen’s clearly missing the larger point. On a campus where 30 percent of nearly 15,000 undergraduates participate in Greek life and university administrators have never expelled anyone for sexual assault, solutions will have to run far deeper than instituting a man code based on the on-screen antics of one newspaper columnist’s boyhood heroes.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.