Irma Kurtz: ‘You know when you’ve been raped. Believe me, I know’

The agony aunt has been accused of blaming women for being raped if they were drunk at the time. But she herself was raped 30 years ago, and is firmly on the side of the victim

Irma Kurtz: ‘It’s a them and us mentality; everything is yes or no, agree or disagree’

Irma Kurtz: ‘It’s a them and us mentality; everything is yes or no, agree or disagree’

Tue, Feb 4, 2014, 01:00

What should we tell young women about the dangers of mixing alcohol and sex? Fifty per cent of teenagers have to use alcohol before they can even speak to a love interest, a conference in Dublin has heard.

Considering that Irish young people don’t even know how to discuss sex when they are sober, researchers said, what chance has a young woman when she is inebriated? It’s common sense to tell young women that being drunk makes them vulnerable to rape.

But when 78-year-old Irma Kurtz, agony aunt for 40 years with Cosmopolitan magazine, gave this advice on BBC radio’s Woman’s Hour last week, she was torn apart. It came about when presenter Jane Garvey quoted advice Kurtz gave in the 1970s: “ ‘I think I was raped’ is a morning-after line that comes my way – once would be too often. Rape is armed robbery, not far from murder. Rapists must be reported for punishment. But please, please remember that your new freedom to go out and play with the boys requires you to employ an even greater freedom, new to women, the greatest freedom we women have finally attained: the freedom at last to take responsibility for ourselves.”

Garvey asked whether Kurtz thought boys could get drunk and girls couldn’t. A surprised Kurtz defended her view: “The woman is responsible for herself. Men and women are not quite the same. If a woman had a weapon she could use when she got drunk, I would tell her not to, of course. But what she does have that she can use is self-defence. And drunkenness tears that away. It really is carelessness to lose your self-defence. You really have to be a little bit defensive when you’re around people who are stupid and armed.”

Kurtz stressed that being drunk did not mean rape victims were to blame, but this was lost in the ensuing tabloid demolition.

Britain’s Women Against Rape reportedly called Kurtz “totally irresponsible”, stating that “it’s time commentators stopped blaming victims”. NIA, a group that acts to reduce violence against women, said: “Whoever the rapist, whatever the circumstances, the state of intoxication of the victim is irrelevant. Rapists are the only ones responsible for rape. Every time.”

Misunderstood
When I speak to her, Kurtz has been up since 6am, fielding phone calls in her studio flat near London’s King’s Cross, where she lives alone. “I feel misunderstood,” she tells me. “I’ve been misquoted and each time it’s repeated it’s exaggerated even more. It’s demoralising. More than that, it’s depressing. I don’t really get angry, but I’m very easily hurt.”

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