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’
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.”
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.”
Wouldn’t the outcry help sales of her new memoir, My Life in Agony? She wouldn’t be the first author to bait the press. “Oh no, no. I wasn’t expecting this. I didn’t plan for this to happen,” she says, audibly in shock, her voice lacking the confidence heard in the Women’s Hour interview two days previously. Kurtz keeps apologising for being flustered. “It’s a storm in a teacup, but at the moment it’s in my teacup in my little flat.”
The confession that comes next is surprising. Kurtz has never written about it. “When you hear women say, ‘I think I was raped’, there’s no thinking that you were raped. You know when you were raped. Believe me, I know. I was raped.
“I was set up by one of my best friends, my hairdresser. In those days the hairdressers and the photographers ran London. He told me to meet him at a party. When I arrived, there were only two men there, and I kept wondering when the party would start. Then the party started. I realised that the man I thought was my friend had planned it. Years later I heard he was shot and killed in a drug deal.”
So it is from first-hand experience that Kurtz says “rape is a vicious and wicked crime”. It affected her, and informed her advice to millions of young women over the years. “I wasn’t drunk,” she adds, “the men were.” She adds that predatory men feeding women drink until they’re semiconscious so they can take advantage of them is “an abominable act: that is rape”.
The young Kurtz was a free-spirited, idealistic young American who crossed the Atlantic on a ship to Paris’s Left Bank in the 1950s, a year after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in English literature. She had acquired a taste for bohemian culture in Greenwich Village.
She was ahead of her time, but by the 1960s feminism was beginning, and it got into its stride in the 1970s, when the freedom to socialise independently, have sex outside marriage and seek equal rights were new freedoms for women.
It was in this context that Kurtz first cautioned that “common sense must tell every young woman to exercise her new right to control herself and to be her own body’s boss; let her never, never become a victim of the much lesser, new freedom to get blotto in public. The Rules of the Road begin in the pub.”
In the 21st century, this old-fashioned common sense has new relevance. At the launch of two new reports last week, the Rape Crisis Network Ireland stated that the Government was ignoring the role alcohol played in sexual aggression. University students’ attitudes to alcohol affected their understanding of “consent to engage in sexual activity”, said Pádraig MacNeela, acting head of the school of psychology at NUI Galway, and author of a report into alcohol and sexual violence. “The underlying issue is there’s a lack of confidence among our young people. We found that drunk sex is often the norm; it inspires confidence to approach somebody,” he said.
When drunk, young people may romanticise a person they barely know, and aspire to make a deep connection, Kurtz believes. The man and woman’s differing expectations of the encounter can lead to hurt feelings and non-consensual sex. Men can drink much more than women. Although they too can be hurt, it’s usually not men who wake up next morning wondering whether they have been raped.
Kurtz blames the harsh reaction to her views on the blunt black-and-white approach to discourse encouraged by social media. “It’s a them and us mentality; everything is yes or no, agree or disagree.” She feels the same way about feminism. “Am I feminist? Yes and no. I’m not an ‘ismist’ – I don’t like -isms. I don’t like being in a room where everyone has made up their minds.”
The unconventional Kurtz was reporting on war zones for Nova, a current affairs magazine, when she chose to become a single mother, a radical step in 1973. Her need to stay in one place with a steady income led to the Cosmopolitan column. Her son’s father, artist Tony Beers, was active in his life, but living together wasn’t an option. Kurtz, who has had “great loves” and is “always in love”, was attracted to vagabonds like herself and never married.
“Women have only one person to find – and that’s yourself. If you are looking for a soulmate, the first soul you must find is your own.” It’s a valuable message for young people – women and men – who feel they have to be drunk before sex because they fear sober intimacy.
My Life in Agony is published by Alma Books