Nothing Shocking

The story of Dr. David Newman is awful, but it is not especially shocking. A successful physician and health reform advocate, Newman was recently charged with drugging and assaulting 2 women he treated at the Mt. Sinai Hospital emergency room on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

This is an appalling, terrible story. It’s a gross, awful, and depressing story, too, but in a recent New York Times piece about Newman, his alleged assaults were mostly just shocking. Shocking, I guess, because Dr. Newman is not the kind of man the Times expects commit these kinds of crimes.

News coverage of the “but he seemed so nice” variety reinforces some of our most damaging assumptions about rape and assault. The stories we repeat—the “Colleagues Express Disbelief Over Arrest of Doctor with Picture Perfect Life” headlines—have horribly negative consequences for the victims of assault. They also have consequences for the kinds of men more readily expected to commit sexual assult. If we are unable to believe that a man with a picture perfect life could drug and grope a patient in the ER, are we more likely to believe that a man with a less perfect life would drug and grope a woman in the ER? Oh, right. The drugging and assaulting is not the exception of a life of power and prestige; it’s the expression of it.

The New York Times coverage of the arrest of Dr. Newman included a January 20th story about Newman’s friends and colleagues and their various expressions of shock and surprise about the arrest. Newman’s “storybook” wedding in New Orleans, where the Spanish moss hung down over a “white carpeted aisle,” and his “gray home with a porch” in Montclair, New Jersey were both presented as evidence that his arrest is especially “shocking.” This man hosts a podcasts with his wife. His wife is herself a doctor. He has two young sons. How could he also be violent or use his position and power to harm people? Apparently, as per the Times, everyone is shocked. The article quotes a colleague of the doctor, assuring us that he is a “good man and an excellent doctor.” A neighbor noted he was a “great guy and a great dad.”

Leaving aside for a moment how weird it is to linger on the Pinterest-worthy details of a powerful man’s wedding when discussing his arrest for drugging and ejaculating upon women in his care, what is this anecdote actually doing? First, it suggests that rape is something we can expect to be committed by people who don’t have storybook weddings. What kind of people are those? Poor people? People of color? People with bad taste or the misfortune of being born in less wedding-appropriate cities? If his wife were an unemployed teacher instead of a podcasting doctor, we he be more likely to ejaculate on his injured patients?

Rape, rarely witnessed, is notoriously hard to prove and prosecute. The classification of rape as a crime—a crime that could result in a man serving a jail sentence—has been a cornerstone issue of the modern feminist movement because it has been so hard to prosecute rape for such a very long time. Historically, the social identities of both the victim and the assailant stood in place of missing evidence. That is why it is only in the last 40 years that our definition of rape has been sufficiently expanded to include sex workers as possible victims or picture-perfect doctors as possible assailants.

We don’t know if Dr. David Newman is guilty of the crimes 2 separate women have accused him of, but in the meantime, take a moment to recall one of the few things we know—definitively—about rape so we can all stop being so shocked when the rapist isn’t the man we expect him to be:

The only thing that makes someone a rapist is raping someone; having a storybook wedding has nothing to do with it.