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Don Lemon to Bill Cosby’s rape accuser: you could have bitten his penis

Yes, it really happened: CNN's Don Lemon suggested to Joan Tarshis, a woman who said she was raped by Bill Cosby, that she should have bitten the comedian's penis to stop the attack.

Here's how it happened, in an interview Tuesday night:

(Media Matters)

Lemon apologized, saying that his remarks were "crude." But the problem wasn't that they were in bad taste. It was that they were dumb. Or, to put it more delicately, they were shockingly out of touch with what anyone who is paying attention understands about sexual assault: a victim doesn't have to be physically overwhelmed for rape to be real.

Tarshis first spoke out on Sunday, claimed she was sexually assaulted by Cosby in 1969, and becoming the 14th women to make similar allegations about the comedian. (On Monday, former supermodel Janice Dickinson came forward to accuse Cosby of rape, becoming the 15th.)

Any conversation about whether she — or any person who says he or she was raped — did enough to fight back physically is absurd. A victim is not obligated to attack a penis with her teeth to show her lack of consent. This is all the more true for person who is drugged the way Tarshis says she was. She wrote in Hollywood Elsewhere:

He made me a redeye, and I, being nervous and dealing at the time with an alcohol problem (I've been in recovery since 1988), drank it. In the car I had something else to drink, but was already beginning to feel a bit stoned ... But soon after, I remember feeling very, very stoned and asking his chauffeur to take me back to the car. I was having trouble standing up. The next thing I remember was waking up in his bed back at the Sherry, naked. I remember thinking ‘You old shit, I guess you got me this time, but it's the last time you'll ever see me.'

In 2014, it is uncontroversial that rape can happen without physical force, and that people who are drugged, like Tashis says she was, cannot consent to sex. They are not expected to bite penises off to stop it.

As Vox's Dara Lind reported earlier this month, the FBI has now changed its out of date definition of rape to remove the word "forcible," precisely to capture the type of situation Tarshis describes.

"The term forcible under the old definition was always trained and collected as 'against the will of the victim," said Stephen Fischer of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division. "For example, drug-facilitated sexual assaults, or sexual assaults of unconscious victims, were counted as forcible."

As Lind explained, the agency made this change to update an old definition of rape that included the use of force, and "was completely out of line with the modern legal understanding of rape."

Don Lemon's understanding about rape remains out of line. And, if the reaction to his interview with Tarshis is any indication, he shouldn't talk about the topic on television until he catches up.  His Tuesday night comments are already being widely mocked for their poor logic and dangerous message:

As of Sunday, Cosby, through his lawyer, made a statement denying all of the sexual assault allegations against him, calling them "decades-old," and "discredited."

Further Reading

Everything you need to know about the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations

Janice Dickinson becomes 15th woman to accuse Bill Cosby of rape

Yes Means Yes is about more than rape