Thursday, October 10, 2013
Whose Stories Matter: A Look at the Responses to Chris Brown
As I am sure many of you have read or seen on social media, Chris Brown discussed his first sexual experience in a recent interview with The Guardian.
“He lost his virginity when he was eight years old, to a local girl who was 14 or 15. Seriously? ‘Yeah, really. Uh-huh.’ He grins and chuckles. ‘It's different in the country.’ Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go. ‘By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I'm saying? Like, girls, we weren't afraid to talk to them; I wasn't afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it.’”
As an anti-sexual violence advocate, I was extremely disheartened when reading the responses and noticing the complete lack of responses. What we saw in the blogosphere and news media outlets would have been very different if this story came from a star of a different gender or race or from one that didn’t have a history of abusive behavior.
Many posts breezed right over Brown’s comments about his early childhood sexual experiences. Others didn’t note any concern for Brown over what he disclosed or outrage that an 8 year old boy was taken advantage of and instead notated it as a vaguely traumatic past experience. Another message was that this experience certainly would not have an impact on Brown so many years down the road. The coverage of the story in this manner can be detrimental for men, especially men of color, who have had similar experiences and attribute these experiences to sexual violence. We already know that men encounter a lot of barriers to identifying their experiences as sexual violence and to then seek services. The messages that these individuals are receiving from this most recent story on Brown—and the countless ones that came before it— are that their experiences aren’t as important or traumatic, their need for support services or resources aren’t as serious, and that they are expected to bounce back from the trauma that they endure.
The response we have seen about Brown’s story has as much to do with race as it does about gender and masculinity. Societal stereotypes and expectations purport that men of color are supposed to be more sexually active and voracious than white males. We also learn that it is normal or expected for men of color to experience violence or trauma and therefore the impact is not as great as it is for other people. These stereotypes and misperceptions hurt those individuals who are directly impacted as disclosures from men of color often aren’t taken as seriously by legal or justice systems and they have a difficult time accessing support services. These misrepresentations also impact our reactions to stories regarding sexual violence and men of color.
Another aspect that disappointed me was how several news sources and blogs that came right and told Chris Brown that he had been raped. Here at BARCC , like many other sexual assault agencies around the world, we operate under the empowerment model. We are never going to define someone’s experience for them and we are never going to tell them how they should or should not be reacting. That is going to be up to each individual, their experiences, their support networks, and other contextual factors. Whatever language someone wants to use is what we are going to mirror back to them as their advocate. We have found through decades of work with survivors that it doesn’t help to name their experience or to tell them what words to use. There is a lot of social stigma around words like survivor, sexual assault, and rape. For that reason and others, many individuals never use those words even when seeking resources. It is not up to the news source, media, bloggers, or social media to define what happened to Chris Brown. It is up to him to define the experience and the impact that it has on him.
One thing we do for clients who call our hotline or seek services who wonder whether their experience was a rape or sexual assault is to provide the legal definition for them. Even if their experience fits within the legal definition, they still don’t have to use those words if they don’t want to. If it falls outside the legal definition, they can use rape and sexual assault if it fits how they interpret what happened. Providing the legal definition is not the end all and be all of explaining sexual violence but it provides a good starting point for many people.
I do want to be clear that regardless of where someone grows up, their race, gender, orientation, class, etc. an 8 year old child is not legally allowed to consent to having sex. According to research on adolescent and child development, youth brains are more focused on immediate gratification, emotional decision making, and the benefits to themselves. Youth are not focused on the how their decisions could impact their future, other individuals, or negative consequences of their behaviors. Adults are there to assist in helping the child or adolescent in setting and enforcing boundaries, making responsible and appropriate decisions, thinking of others, and talking through what the consequences or results of the choices they make are. These adult-child interactions are essential to the youth’s development and growth.
I have also read and heard responses that diminish Brown’s experiences because of his abusive behaviors to his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna. His abusive behaviors and lack of accountability afterwards are inexcusable. He has a lot of work to do to rectify the harm he caused to Rihanna and also to fans who looked up to him. Because of these actions, people are quick to cast him into a demonized role or ‘bad person’ category and therefore not deserving of compassion or assistance. However, we cannot wipe away the former trauma or violence someone experienced simply because we do not like their current behaviors or personality. These experiences and actions are intertwined and we have to give each one the appropriate attention and services they need.
I understand that there are many things influencing people’s responses. However, that does not give us the right to steamroll through a story, label someone’s experiences, or diminish what happened. We need to start taking advantage of teachable moments and conscientious of the messages we are sending when educating and reporting on sexual violence. (For more on that see Meg’s post on SV and journalism). It’s not healthy for society, communities, or individuals to continue pretending sexual violence doesn’t happen or that silence is the best way to assist survivors or reduce its prevalence.