Chris Brown and the Culture of Misinformation about Sexual Assault of Men and Boys

by | October 10, 2013
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Chris Brown performing on stageby Arwen McKechnie

Trigger Warning: discussion of sexual assault, child abuse, victim-blaming.

I’m going to start this with a disclaimer – I don’t like Chris Brown. I don’t like his music and, more importantly, I think he’s a typical example of the kind of man who batters his partner.

He’s never really taken any responsibility for his brutal assault on Rihanna, and seems to feel that rather than getting a slap on the wrist by virtue of his money and success, he has been poorly treated by the media and world at large. He’s sick of talking about, he wants to move on, so why won’t the world just let him be great? It makes me sad for humanity that many people can so easily disconnect his abhorrent personality from his musical and commercial success.

So it’s a new feeling for me to have some sympathy for him, but that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now. Chris Brown effectively told a reporter for The Guardian that he was sexually abused as a child. And based on the content of his interview, he doesn’t even realize it. Sadly, it would appear that his interviewer didn’t realize it either, and that’s where my heart really does break for him.

There’s a moment when rape survivors, especially those that have been assaulted by an acquaintance or potential romantic partner, come to terms with the fact that what happened to them was sexual assault. Some people know it right from the start, but it’s more common than you might think for people to rationalize what happened to them: it was a bad date or it was a mistake, drunken or otherwise, but surely it wasn’t rape. Something went bad, something didn’t feel right, but surely it wasn’t rape. Because if it was, if it really was rape, what does that mean for them now?

This line of thought is sadly common in survivors of sexual assault. Sexual violence is more commonly experienced by women than by men, and women are taught from a very young age that their physical safety, especially their sexual safety, is their own responsibility.

So in the aftermath of a sexual assault, the litany of self-blame begins: if only I hadn’t done this, if only I hadn’t said that, why didn’t I just…, etc, etc. It’s a normal reaction to the years of social conditioning that women receive supposedly teaching them how to prevent themselves from being raped.

At the same time, while some boys and young men are actively taught to be respectful of their partners and themselves and wait for the enthusiastic “yes” rather than just the absence of a “no”, the broader narrative around male sexuality dictates that men must be patient. Men, apparently, always want sex, but must restrain their natural impulses and wait for their partners to be ready.

This myth of the super-charged male sex drive eclipses any possibility that men and young boys may not be ready for sex, may not want to have casual sex, may actually experience sexual assault.

In the very limited ways that we do talk about sexual assault against men and boys, it’s almost always in the context of assault by another man or boy. Women as perpetrators is still a concept that we, as a society, are deeply uncomfortable with, and men as victims/survivors is something that runs counter to what we collectively and many men individually see as a man’s role.

Chris Brown was eight years old when he lost his virginity to a 14-year-old girl. Even if things are “different in the country,” as he says in the Guardian interview, he was a child. An eight-year-old boy does not have the capacity to consent to sex at all, ever, and a fourteen-year-old girl, who can (at least in Canada) consent to sex with a partner no older than her by five years, should have known better. This is child sexual abuse, and while it sounds like Brown doesn’t see it that way, that doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Brown may not have the language or the self-awareness to examine the implications of this experience on his emotional development and relationships with women, but whether he does or not, the media coverage of this interview has been completely appalling.

Otherwise sensible, supposedly progressive outlets like Jezebel have written about Brown’s interview in ways that they would never have covered the same allegations from a woman and while Jezebel did print a second article properly contextualizing Brown’s disclosure as abuse, no apology for the first article was offered. One gossip blog is even polling readers on whether or not these abuse allegations are true. Unacceptable.

The best response to Brown’s interview that unequivocally states it to be a disclosure of abuse and also offers some thoughtful insights into why Brown (and others) may not see it that way comes from Feministing’s Mychal Denzel Smith. Smith correctly identifies Brown’s statements not as bragging, as Jezebel’s Doug Barry does, but as an attempt to rationalize and reclaim a deeply problematic incident.

Child sexual abuse victims are often told by predators that what is being done to them is natural or a mark of a special relationship or any number of other lies that attempt to normalize a huge abuse of trust. But imagine if it wasn’t just an abuser, but everyone a child met, everyone he trusted, every media message he consumed, telling him the same thing: that men want sex, that they always want it, that to be a man is to be sexually voracious, even if you’re not really a man yet. Even if you’re just a little boy.

(photo of Chris Brown performing in Sydney in 2012, by Eva Rinaldi, CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)

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