On Rape Culture, Race, and Gender Roles: Chris Brown’s Latest Revelation

trigger warning: discussion of statutory rape, sexual assault

A discussion of the role of race and gender in discussion about Chris Brown’s early loss of virginity, written by HCWC intern Brianna.

Chris Brown has been in the news recently for his revelation that he lost his virginity at the age of 8, to a girl who was 14 or 15. If we remove Brown’s name/gender and the gender of his sexual partner, the sentence reads more like this: a young teenager had sex with an 8 year old. In this context, it sounds a lot more like rape. While Brown “grins and chuckles” about this experience to The Guardian, it could easily be considered non-consensual sex. While some of the media has chosen to characterize Brown as your average hypersexual pop star, other news sources have chosen to label him as a victim of sexual assault.

I’ll acknowledge early on that Brown is responsible for the assault of his then-girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. There is no question of his guilt in that, but this blog post is intended to shed some light on an aspect of Brown’s life that has been recently mentioned, but not analyzed.

Brown, a rural Virginia native, told the reporter from The Guardian that “it’s different in the country,” attributing his experience to a porn-driven early desire for sex, but under Virginia law, his sexual experience is considered a crime in which he is the victim. I don’t know if it’s fair for those who don’t know Brown (or his experiences) to label him as a victim of sexual assault; as Akiba Solomon of Colorlines said, “To disarm someone—particularly someone as troubled as Brown—without sanctuary feels unethical to me.” Maybe it’s unfair to impose victimhood on Brown. We can instead recognize that he was, by most legal and practical definitions, sexually assaulted as a child, and we can deconstruct the forces at play behind Brown’s conceptualization of the assault and the media’s reaction to his experience.

It’s important to recognize that Brown’s story is probably not as isolated as we would like to think. It took the FBI 85 years to recognize that rape was not just something that could happen to women. Our concept of rape is most frequently a gendered one that hinges on female victimization by male perpetrators. This isn’t rape’s only form, and by continuing to think of and define rape as exclusively male-on-female violence, we’re silencing sexual assault survivors who fall outside of these boundaries. In fact, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports that 10 percent of sexual assault survivors are male. Sometimes, these survivors don’t realize that they have been sexually assaulted – maybe because of gender, maybe because of other factors. An inclusive and comprehensive definition of rape is highly important in encouraging survivors to recognize, process, cope, and choose to seek help.

Strict, racialized gender expectations combined with the shame and stigma of sexual assault fuel the rape culture and hypersexualized definition of masculinity that likely contributed to Brown’s experience. Brown, as a young part of American society, was probably exposed to the same image of black masculinity that most of us are familiar with: hip hop icons who glorified exorbitant amounts of wealth, weaponry, and women. With this image in mind (as well as the images of pornography that he watched with friends at this age), Brown believed, and potentially still believes, that his sexual experience at age 8 was an affirmation of the things that he’s supposed to do as a black male in America. Brown turns The Guardian’s interview question about his virginity into an opportunity to slyly brag about the high quality and quantity of his sexual encounters since age 8: “you know how Prince had a lot of girls back in the day? Prince was, like, the guy. I’m just that, today. But most women won’t have any complaints if they’ve been with me. They can’t really complain. It’s all good.”

The Grio’s response to this quote is stern, but powerful, implicating the media: “Watching pornography and having sex while in elementary school do not prepare one to be a “beast” later on at sexual intercourse. It makes one more likely to have a skewed sense of how to recognize and engage in a healthy sexual relationship.  What’s the media’s rationale for so readily packaging that quote in that way?” The media has, and continues to, perpetuate rape culture through victim-blaming and stigmatization of victims and survivors. But in addition to these offenses, the media is responsible for promoting the hypersexual black male identity that 8 year old Brown likely aspired to, while also diminishing the significance and seriousness of the statutory rape of a young boy by a female aggressor.

Rape and sexual assault, like other forms of violence (and most other aspects of our society, for that matter), are gendered. Our societal expectations of individuals are heavily based on race and gender, and it’s time to start deconstructing these. We could even begin to deconstruct the social significance of virginity (and losing it). Instead of turning Brown into a dehumanized spectacle, why not open up the conversation about gendered/racialized violence and unhealthy masculinity?

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3 thoughts on “On Rape Culture, Race, and Gender Roles: Chris Brown’s Latest Revelation

  1. Pingback: Race and gender in the sex wars: media complicity in sex based victim marketing | more useful than suicide

  2. I was getting uncomfortable with the “placing victimhood” on Brown as well, though it was a better alternative to the victim-blaming. The entire situation requires very complicated and ongoing responses. Great article. It nice to see someone recognize there are no easy answers.

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