Bringing Down the Colonel

In reading a new book about one of the first sex scandals in American history, I realize that despite what we know about physiology and psychology, many of the same misconceptions about culpability remain. It's time to change. #ibelieve #metoo #survivor #sexualharassment #bookreview

Trigger Warning: This post deals with a book about sexual predation that reveals one the biggest sex scandals in American history. Before I get to the book review, you should understand a few things about human psychology—bits and pieces that help guide us as we discuss sexual assault,rape, and harassment. You also need to know a few things about me.

 Let me just state up front that I have nothing against men. I married a wonderful man, one who willingly sees things from different perspectives. One who stayed home with our daughters in their toddler years,took on the burden of housework, cooking, and shopping, and didn’t believe the experience emasculated him.

I DO have a problem with people (usually men) who think that they have some inherent superiority over women that naturally fits them for leadership or rule. Even worse?  Men who blame women for their own lack of self-control. You know the ones—they think that the way a woman dresses excuses their violent/demeaning/harassing behavior. Their logic equals mine when I blame the chocolate for making me gain weight.

The double standard for men and women has existed since Eve bit into the forbidden fruit and Adam joined (and then blamed) her. Likewise, political leaders (whether elected or inherited) and their foibles with the fair sex have stirred controversy since ancient times; David’s seduction of Bathsheba comes to mind.

Unfortunately, since Eve DID take the first bite, many men have seen women as their Achilles heel. Throughout history men have used their superior strength to enact laws and rules that protect them from women. To no avail, evidently, since men both single and married have taken advantage of women when they can’t control themselves, and then they pass the blame on to the woman.

How a Man Reacts to Sexual Overtures

The sad part about the male-is-superior-and-women-are-always-to-blame mindset is that it pits two people against each other but, ultimately, everyone suffers. Women and men both have seduced each other over the centuries. But what happens when a woman seduces a man is much different from what happens when a man tries to seduce a woman.

A man’s hardwiring triggers a physical response, whereas a woman’s hardwiring triggers an analytical/emotional response. A basic awareness of the difference will help us understand more about sex scandals in American history. It will also peel back a few layers of the shroud covering the topic of sexual assault, harassment, and rape.

When a woman tries to seduce a man, his instinct is to respond in kind—he’s hardwired to respond physically. If he doesn’t reciprocate, he has no problems saying ‘No, thank you’ or letting the woman know in no uncertain terms that he’s not interested.

Think of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in the Bible, for example (Genesis 39). Sure, Potiphar threw Joseph in jail because his ‘anger burned’—although it doesn’t specify against whom.  Joseph spent time in jail for the false accusation, but his stellar character shone even in the darkest circumstances and he eventually ended up as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Despite the spurned wife’s accusations, Joseph’s character remained intact and his career path experienced a hiccup. God blessed him for his integrity.

The seduction scenario has a different outcome when a man tries to seduce a woman. If the woman reciprocates his amorous feelings, is available, and wants to consummate the experience, it’s a go. Both man and woman feel good about the experience.

How a Woman Reacts to Sexual Overtures

When a man tries to seduce a woman, she doesn’t react like a man because she’s hardwired differently. Multiple things might go through her mind when a man initiates a sexual move. More than likely she’ll quickly run through an inner list in her head:

In reading a new book about one of the first sex scandals in American history, I realize that despite what we know about physiology and psychology, many of the same misconceptions about culpability remain. It's time to change. #ibelieve #metoo #survivor #sexualharassment #bookreview

1) Do I feel emotionally ready for a sexual encounter?

2) Will my negative response cause me to anger him?

2) How will his anger affect me or the ones I love?

3) How powerful is he? (not just physically, but is he in a powerful position and will people believe me or him if it comes to a he-said-she-said situation).

Fight or Freeze

Men and women also have different responses to fear. Imagine walking down a dark street in the city late at night. A strange man approaches you. Your response depends on your gender.

If you’re a male, your body gears up for either fighting or running—whichever looks most expedient at the time. The stranger asks for the time, and you respond in a somewhat belligerent voice with the time and add a glare and a grunt to clearly signal that you do not appreciate the situation.

If you’re a female, your body might freeze while your mindgoes into overdrive. You will assess the situation; look for escape routes;berate yourself for not taking self-defense classes; wonder if you have ID on youso the police can identify your body and notify your loved ones; try to standtaller and make yourself look more confident; look the man in the eye…wait,maybe that’s what one does for mountain lions, not men…; assess his size andweight and wonder if you can outrun him while at the same time wondering why yourfeet won’t move; wonder if you really could kick a man in the crotch. In fact,nothing on your body seems to function. Except your overactive imagination.When the man asks for the time, the answer squeaks out between frozen lips. Yourbody sags with pulsing adrenaline as the man walks away.

These differences between men and women make it easier for men to ignore their inner voice of conscience. They justify their behavior because surely the woman would have said so if she didn’t like what the man was doing (because that’s what HE would do—fight back or say, “No!”).

The “I’m-innocent-because-it-was-consensual-because-she-didn’t-fight” plea makes perfect sense to the man. But what if the woman was physiologically incapable of fighting or shouting, “No!”

What gets lost in the acrimony is the fact that women and men respond to danger differently.

New research shows that males are hardwired to respond with a flight or fight reaction. Woman, on the other hand, have a hardwired tend and befriend response.

Why Didn’t You Fight? Why Didn’t You Report?

It seems like a logical question. But for women, the answer has many layers—some of them psychological and some physiological. Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town opened my eyes to this physiological difference.

In the book Krakauer relates the story of a woman who remained silent as a man raped her while she was lying in bed next to her husband and young son. She froze when the man climbed on top of her in the middle of the night, and chose not to do anything because she felt that her silence would ensure the safety of her husband and son.

I did a quick search on the Internet to see if I could find details on this case, and discovered multiple headlines where a woman gets raped while lying in bed next to her husband. One website (the Bulawayo 24 News ) started its article with this callous sentence: “A CHEEKY housebreaker from Gokwe, who raped a woman while her husband was asleep next to her on their matrimonial bed, has been sentenced to 16 years in jail.” As if rape performed by a teenager should be excused as a youthful indiscretion akin to putting a worm down a girl’s shirt. At least the court recognized the heinous nature of the crime.

A young woman once confided to a friend of mine that her boyfriend had date-raped her. Only she didn’t use those words. The young woman said, “My boyfriend got a little rough with me.”

My friend (a male) responded with, “I’m sorry. That wasn’t very nice of him.” He totally misread the cue and had no idea that the young woman was trying to initiate a conversation about a crime, but didn’t have the vocabulary or emotional maturity to discuss the situation with someone in authority.

The Tragic Difference

Because females react to fright and seduction differently, men may feel justified in their behavior. Common myths men believe (and some women who haven’t experienced assault, rape, or harassment believe as well):

  • Quid pro quo—or taking a woman on an expensive date entitles the male to sexual satisfaction at the end of the date.
  • If the woman doesn’t fight or say ‘no,’ she consents to the sexual encounter (remember the physiological differences to fear stimulus—what if the woman can’t fight or say no).
  • A woman who drinks too much/takes drugs/dresses in a provocative manner ‘deserves’ what she gets. Aka, blame the woman theology.
  • A moan means she’s enjoying it (never mind that people moan in fright and pain, too).

When we subscribe to any of these myths, we not only objectify women, we demean men as well. We excuse (and thus condone) unconscionable male behavior by facilitating the myth that men are helpless victims who can’t keep their pants zipped up.

We excuse (and thus condone) unconscionable male behavior by facilitating the myth that men are helpless victims who can't keep their pants zipped up. #ibelieve Click To Tweet

Men who get away with rape often continue to rape—and believe that they deserve satisfaction, a woman’s honor be damned. Just read through the stories of Bill Cosby’s victims. Because society has repeatedly excused men’s behavior, society believes its myths. Once again, that’s like blaming the 12-point buck for losing his life because he had what hunters wanted to hang on their walls.

That's like blaming the 12-point buck for losing his life because he had what hunters wanted to hang on their walls. #ibelieve #metoo Click To Tweet

Even worse, society has conditioned women to fear strangerrape. In reality, we have more to fear from friends, business colleagues, andfamily members. Seven out of 10 rape victims know their rapist. Many of theseincidents go unreported—out of disbelief, shame, or a desire to keep the peace.

“We were best friends,” one young woman wrote to me, explaining why she didn’t report a sexual assault to authorities, “I didn’t want to ruin the friendship or make all of our mutual friends hate me.” This response bears out the research on the differences between genders and their response to stress (danger). A woman’s instinct is to tend and befriend.

False Accusations?

Some men have had their lives torn apart by false accusations —but that number is so miniscule compared to the number of women whose lives have been torn apart by sexual harassment, assault, rape, or abuse.  Rape is a crime of dominance. It’s a crime against our personhood and dignity—whether the victims are female or male. Yes, men get raped, too (10% of all adult rape victims are men ).

Rape is a crime of dominance. It's a crime against our personhood and dignity. #ibelieve #metoo Click To Tweet

When a woman does report a rape, assault, or incident of abuse, she fights not only the memory of what happened, but for the credulity of the one in authority (often a man) who takes her testimony. She may embellish events in order to sound more credible, or forget important details as her auditor questions her story.

Take the Kobe Bryant case, for instance. His accuser admitted to changing small details during the interview because she felt that the officer didn’t believe her story. Did his accuser lie about the rape? If she did, why did Bryant apologize publicly for his behavior? How have our ideas about culpability and seduction changed in the past hundred years?

Sex Scandals in American History

Not as much as one would think. Patricia Miller’s new book Bringing Down the Colonel brings to light the most scandalous sex scandal accusation of a politician in the past century—that of Madeline Pollard against Colonel William P. C. Breckenridge.

When Jennie Tucker heads to Washington D.C. with the promise of a lucrative position, she has no idea what her employer has in mind for her. A single woman nearing her thirties, Jennie comes from a good family that has a beautiful home, but no money to maintain it—or her. 

No Place for a Woman

In Victorian America on the east coast, economic necessity forced more and more women to enter the work force when they failed to marry and their parents could no longer support them. But entering the work force carried a horrible stigma. Men viewed working girls as prey. A woman who left the traditional career path of wife and mother found herself subject to the unwanted advances of bosses, co-workers, and acquaintances.

When Jennie arrives, she discovers that Mr. Stoll, her employer, wants her to befriend a certain infamous Madeline Pollard. Jennie, happy for a position that allows her to play spy and detective, sets out to discover incriminating evidence against the woman who had recently sued the famous Colonel William P. C. Breckinridge for ‘breach of promise.’

Breach of promise suits almost never went well for the woman. In the Victorian era, a breach of promise suite implied that a woman had given her virginity to a man in exchange for a promise of marriage and now had ‘neither her virginity nor a wedding band to show for it.’ What made Madeline Pollard’s case especially scandalous was her claim that her relationship with Breckinridge had spanned eight years and produced multiple children. The colonel, during this time, was married.

A fascinating true story about how a brave woman helped change the Victorian double standard that posited that a woman must come to the alter pure, while a man could have multiple affairs—both before and after marriage.

A History of Women in the United States

The author weaves in fascinating facts about social mores from the Puritans to the Victorians. She explains how the double-standard at the time of the court case hurt women who strove to gain an education and gain acceptance in a world ruled by men.

The reader will hear about horrifying practices and cringe as one realizes that the attitude of modern society regarding sexual misconduct has changed little from that of Victorian society. We haven’t made as much progress in the last hundred years as one would have thought.

The double-standard remains, fueled by our lack of understanding of the essential differences between males and females and our race to excuse and condone the behavior of popular and powerful men.

Readers of Erik Larson will enjoy the way the author weaves history and narrative together in a well-researched book that keeps the reader engaged from start to finish.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.


  1. Love this article, though it’s sad how little society has changed over the years. Charlie Puth comes to mind: his song “Attention” seems innocuous enough—the lyrics talk about a girl who doesn’t actually want the boy’s heart, all she wants is his attention. But then I watched an interview where Puth says the young woman he wrote about only wanted his attention and wouldn’t “put out” (aka have sex) in return. This guy is very popular in music today, but he lost me at that comment.

  2. What a great post, Anita. I just finished reading “Resist and Persist” about some similar issues. We still have FAR to go in protecting women’s rights to our own bodies, etc. Thanks for sharing about this book. Sounds like a great (but hard) one.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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