Dear Don Lemon, Your Apology Ain't Worth Sh*t

by Michelle Denise Jackson

Trigger warning: sexual violence, victim blaming, rape culture, misogyny

When I woke up yesterday morning, my News Feed had erupted with status updates and headlines in response to this video, which features Don Lemon more or less suggesting to Joan Tarshis how she could have avoided being raped by Bill Cosby in 1969. According to good ol’ Don, women can avoid being forced to have oral sex by “biting” their attacker’s penis. He gave Tarshis this “advice” on his show.

In response, Joan Tarshis then tries to explain that she was “kind of stoned at the time,” and the thought never crossed her mind. Essentially, Lemon put Ms. Tarshis in the incredibly embarrassing (and triggering) position of having to make an excuse for why she did not prevent her own rape by Cosby.

At the end of the video, Lemon looks incredibly proud of himself, stating that “he just had to ask” if the thought had occurred to Tarshis at the time of her sexual assault.

Actually, Don, you did not have to ask. As a matter of fact, you should never ask why a woman did not prevent her own rape or sexual assault. There are many reasons for this. But the two that came to mind during Lemon’s interview with Tarshis is that (a) this was a woman who had already been abused by Cosby before; (b) biting his penis may have resulted in more escalated violence from Cosby; and (c) the act of a man forcing someone to put their mouth on his penis is still rape—whether the survivor “bites” or not.

The remarks that Lemon made are what we call victim blaming, and it largely impacts how our society views people who have been victims of sexual violence.

This is something I know too well.

For the past month, I have been suffocating under the weight of a depressive episode triggered by memories of my own rape when I was 19 years old. Like Tarshis, it has taken me years to acknowledge what happened to me. Like Tarshis, it has taken me years to name my attacker, knowing that he will never be prosecuted for assaulting me. Like Tarshis and the other women who have made allegations against Cosby, when I did begin to tell others about my rape, I was questioned and met with doubt. I was in a relationship with my attacker, and continued it even after he raped me.

Remarks like the one Don Lemon made are the reason that 60% of all sexual assaults go unreported, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the U.S. Justice Department. And until people stop making the kind of remarks that Don Lemon made, rape culture will persist. Until we stop thinking that it is the individual woman’s responsibility to prevent her own rape—rather than a collective change in cultural norms and attitudes—rape culture will persist. Until we stop ignoring men who are predators—simply because they are wealthy, or educated, or famous, or powerful—rape culture will persist.

For myself and other survivors, having to constantly “prove” to others that we were sexually assaulted is almost as traumatic as the actual assault itself. For the past six years, I have had to grapple with the shame that comes from knowing I “allowed” someone I loved and trusted to violate me. By not fighting him the night of the abuse, by continuing our relationship because I still loved him, I feel like I gave him the power to hurt me. Even though I know this is not true, I still feel guilty. I excused his behavior—or rather, the crime he committed against me—because I did not know not to. Indeed, after I told others about my rape, there were some who said, “Well, that was not really rape. Men just have needs.” And so, I have spent years blaming myself for my own rape.

These are the very real emotional and psychological affects of victim blaming and rape culture.

Of course, Don Lemon quickly apologized for his on-air comments, recognizing how “insensitive” they were, and noting his own status as a victim of sexual violence. His apology is worthless, as it does not erase the impact his words had on Joan Tarshis; nor does it erase the beliefs about sexual violence that prompted him to make them. In the same way that a man “apologizing” for assaulting a woman does not erase the trauma; apologizing for blaming a woman for her own rape does not either.

There should never need to be an apology. Instead, we need to eradicate the systems of patriarchy and misogyny in place that allow for rape and sexual assault to happen so frequently—in the U.S. and throughout the world. We need to teach men, women, and those who do not conform to the gender binary the importance of affirmative consent. We need to reinforce that individuals are the sole owners of our bodies and sexualities; we do not owe them to anyone else.

We need to prevent sexual violence on a systemic and cultural level. Period.

An apology is worth jack-shit to me otherwise.

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, storyteller, and performer from Southern California. She is the editorial assistant at When she is not reading or writing, she is co-producing her original web series, “GIRL, GET YO’ LIFE!” and watching a lot of Netflix. For more of her work, follow her on Twitter (@MichelleJigga) and visit her website:

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