Friday, November 23, 2012

The Times Square sailor and Jenny McCarthy: sexual assaulters?

A few months ago, it was "revealed" that the principals in Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic 1945 Life Magazine photograph depicting a sailor passionately  kissing a nurse in Times Square at the conclusion of World War II were, in fact, strangers. This was scarcely a "revelation" since the photographer himself long ago wrote about the incident and made it fairly clear that the subjects of his photo were strangers.  But the "revelation" prompted some bloggers to declare that a crime had been committed because "the image actually and unambiguously depicts an act of sexual assault." The Feministing blog solemnly called it "stomach turning" and noted: "If there is a better symbol for how messed up our ideas about sex and romance are, I can’t think of one." See here.

Fast forward to last Sunday night at the American Music Awards. After announcing that teen heartthrob Justin Bieber, 18, was the winner in the rock/pop album of the year category, Jenny McCarthy, a 40-year-old ex-Playboy model, suddenly and without warning, grabbed Bieber by the neck and the ass and kissed him.

I might be wrong, but I don't think that Feministing has even written about the McCarthy-Bieber incident, much less condemned it. Otherwise, the reaction to this incident is curious. 

"Wow. I feel violated right now," Bieber himself said, laughing it off.

McCarthy attempted to explain herself. "I couldn't help it, he was just so delicious, so little, and just, ahhhk, I wanted to tear his head off and eat it."  And: "I took the opportunity in the window, considering I'll never get to do it again, and kind of molested him."

Some snarky Hollywood news outlets have even invented a pithy term for it: "cougar rape." They are treating it as an inappropriate, yet humorous, "cougar" moment, not a crime. One report said this: "McCarthy is known her pranks and funny personality so most likely she meant nothing by it and was probably even trying to embarrass Bieber a little in front of an audience for a laugh."

Is is wrong to kiss someone of either gender without his or her consent? Yes, it's a personal violation. Yet, do we, as a society, want to see either the Times Square sailor or Jenny McCarthy criminally charged?  My guess is that a poll in response to such a question would yield an overwhelming "no" as to both, with at least a slight majority rolling their eyes over the fact that the question was even asked in the first place. While most people would probably claim to have "zero tolerance" for sex offenses, in practice, even "zero tolerance" has its limits, and not every personal violation should end in a jail term.

So, how do we deal with personal violations like these?

Does it matter, for instance, that Justin Bieber, and, my guess, the nurse in the Times Square photo, were OK with being kissed? A little startled, but OK with it?  Or do we really want to head down the path of deciding whether something is criminal based on how offended the victim was?

Does context matter? Does the jubilation over news of the end of a horrific war lessen the seriousness of the Times Square assault? How about the jubilation over a major music award among wacked-out, free spirit Hollywood types?

Does the fact that the public isn't at all concerned about either kiss simply mean that most people are unenlightened? Consider that virtually everyone would be outraged by news of a rape -- so does their indifference to the Times Square and Bieber kisses mean they are unenlightened, or does it just mean that people are able to make judgments about the seriousness of these sorts of incidents and that they don't think the kisses are that big a deal? 

I just just raise the questions, you can answer as well as I can.

I know one thing: these sorts of incidents shouldn't be treated differently when the genders are reversed. The Feministing blog said that it hoped that a kiss like the one in Times Square would "garner the proper prosecution it deserves" in today's world. So what does the McCarthy kiss deserve, or was that somehow "different" because the victim was an 18-year-old guy?  Haven't we reached the stage where we all agree that an assault that merits prosecution is an assault that merits prosecution regardless of the genders of the victim and perpetrator? And if it isn't appropriate in this case, shouldn't we stop using 67-year-old incidents to make political points?

Sources: see, e.g.,,0,3577726.story and