Aya de Leon examines how children create stories to get themselves through brutal times. And some children never grow up.
R & B artist R Kelly has drawn fire since the release of his provocative “Black Panties” album with a cover image that has him literally lying in a pile of faceless young female bodies. Jessica Hopper’s recent piece for the Village Voice that chronicles the “stomach-turning” accounts of abuse have many thinking of R Kelly as a monster. I don’t disagree that his behavior is monstrous or that he needs to be held legally, emotionally, and financially accountable for his actions. However, one fact that rarely surfaces in the discussions is any report of Kelly’s own alleged molestation by a trusted neighbor when he was a boy. I have always included this allegation when writing critically about Kelly (see above link). In reflecting on the construction of masculine identity, particularly for African American men, I can’t help but notice how their earlier vulnerability as boys is consistently erased. At the end of 2013, I find myself reflecting on another key moment of erasure of that vulnerability that happened earlier this year with Chris Brown. In a public interview, he unknowingly disclosed his own early sexual trauma, and unwittingly revealed a truth about the sexual socialization of men.
I had a wonderful childhood. Mommy used to smoke a pipe with magical white rocks that gave her energy!
Young children tell themselves many stories to get through brutal times. Young people use every ounce of optimism and imagination to reinvent a world that will not crush them. Over time, they gain more information and experience. Then slowly they reconcile their version of events with reality. This process is called growing up. But it never happened with Chris Brown.
According to Colorlines, “The Guardian…published a story about Chris Brown that included the news that he’d ‘lost his virginity’ to a teenage girl at age eight. He didn’t admit this fact. Rather, it came in the form of bragging—about his virility at age eight, the pornography he watched with his older cousins at age eight, and the way in which ‘sex’ at age eight primed him to be a ‘beast at it’ now.”
Colorlines concludes that “the bottom line here is that Chris Brown was sexually assaulted as a child—legally and practically speaking.” As Colorlines and others have pointed out, if the genders were reversed, everyone would be clear that an eight-year-old girl had been assaulted by a teenage boy. But if the genders were reversed, the girl would also grow up and get information that validated the reality of the power imbalance between her and the teenage boy. She would hear stories of other girls who had survived unwanted sexual attention of many types, and would be able to identify her own story in that cacophony of voices. Brown, in contrast, has only heard reinforcement of his magical story of the sexually awakened eight-year-old boy “beast.” In the interview, he doesn’t even realize that he is reporting to the world that he was raped as a child. Part of the discussion on Colorlines was about how you publicly reveal to a troubled young man with a violent past that they’ve been assaulted when they don’t even know it.
My dad is really good at math. He’s at a special lab, so top secret it has guards and barbed wire. They even changed his name to a number: inmate #54833974.
Porn is another type of magical story. A world that is all about sex, all the time. Everything is about sex. The women are always interested in sex, in whatever kind of sex the man (or men) want. Really, the porn is branded so that the consumer can buy a magical story of women who want to have whatever kind of sex the consumer wants to see, fantasize about, maybe actually have in real life, maybe not.
While women watch porn also, and there are alternative types of porn, the vast majority is developed and packaged for heterosexual men. The consumer’s ability to purchase a fantasy of any type of sexual “yes!” he wants from women reinforces the story of men in control, always in control.
It’s called the Adult Film Industry for a reason. Because adults have sufficient information to consent to watching graphic sexual material and children do not. Young people’s sexual curiosity is a good thing—both males and females. What they deserve is age-appropriate, accurate information about sex from a relaxed adult who can answer their questions.
A boy at the age of eight watching porn is not actually able to understand and process that degree of sexual imagery. A child too young to understand the difference between fact and myth in children’s movies or with regard to the Tooth Fairy would certainly be unable to decode the complex web of commercial fantasy and playacting in a video of adults performing prescribed sexual acts for payment. It would, however, for such an impressionable mind, stimulate incredible fascination, perhaps fixation, but long before a child is sexually mature enough to determine what is his own thought or desire and what has been imposed by the experience. In some ways, I would argue that the porn itself is an assault. And because the boy is not of age to purchase or access porn himself, to even conjure his own desire to search it out, he cannot consent to the experience of watching graphic depictions of adult sex. Not any more than he can consent to a sexual act with an older girl.
Yet Chris Brown tells the story of his “first time” with his vulnerability surgically removed. In his magical version, he is the aggressor. He continues to live inside the story. It’s like watching a version of the movie “The Truman Show,” or “Bolt.” How can you communicate to the protagonist that what he understands to be his experience is not actually real?
I was so special that my uncle had a nighttime game he only played with me.
Part of the problem is that racism makes it difficult for us, the actual audience, to see him as vulnerable. If we had any doubts, the recent Trayvon Martin killing has shown us, once again, that black male minors are easily cast in the role of aggressor. Even when unarmed, fleeing, terrified.
Inside the equally magical story of racism, and in some ways, within the internalized racism of the African American community itself, black men can easily be cast as “beasts.” Their rage and violence against women seen as some kind of inherent malignancy, as opposed to a result of trauma.
I will never forget when an article in Newsweek recounted that R Kelly had allegedly been molested as a young teen. Finally, his fixation for girls that age had some sort of context in a history of trauma.
R Kelly, like Chris Brown, has three camps of commentary. The defenders insist, as his loyal, loving fans, that he could never do something so awful (in spite of settlement payoffs or even implication of those troubled tendencies in the music). Or worse yet, these days young women eagerly offer themselves up to be beaten by Chris Brown. Then there are the demonizers, who insist that of course he did it and should be put under the jail. Finally, there are the apologists who think he probably did it, but he can’t be held accountable because of his own trauma history.
I would argue that the problem is not about individual accountability. We need to be accountable as a society for continually creating these men. We have a culture that treats boys savagely, gives them little or no opportunities to heal from that mistreatment, and then gives them huge amounts of power over women as adult men. It’s no wonder the violence is acted out on such an epidemic scale. Celebrities are simply the absolute extreme version of that power and access to women’s (or children’s) bodies upon which to act out that rage or desperation or both. An often used term for this is “rape culture,” a society that intentionally creates a story of “Blurred lines” of consent, when there’s actually much stark clarity of non-consent. But in the language of “mansplaining,” women get told that the man is the one who really knew what she wanted, and no amount of saying no, yelling no, fighting or resistance can break the spell of the story that the world is filled with women who can’t wait to do exactly what a man wants sexually.
I loved school. My older best friend made sure my hair was clean every day. The boy’s room sinks were small so he used the whirlpool basin.
The damage of rape culture to girls obvious and well-documented. The damage, however, to boys is more murky and confusing. In a climate of sexual double standard where men ate the ones making conquests, even consensual sex puts women at risk for slut-shaming. But while women who are slut-shamed, coerced, or forced into sex are clearly on the losing team, are the men doing the conquering really the winners? Granted, the men have agency, are making decisions, and at times enforcing them on women (and/or children). But something of this equation is still inside the magical story. In the story, any narrative of male arousal, stimulation and climax is branded as “pleasure,” “gratification,” and “fun.” Recent campaigns on college campus talk about “Consent: A good time for everyone.” This implies that sex without consent is only a good time for the man. While we know it’s a traumatic and damaging experience for women, I would argue that maybe it’s actually a losing proposition for the men, as well.
At UC Berkeley, where I teach, the fraternity house Phi Gamma Delta is nicknamed Fiji house. The house was put on social probation due to a young man falling to his death nearly a decade ago. There have not, however, been any sanctions for sexual violence, although it is also allegedly nicknamed Rape House. This, according to one of my female students. I looked to the internet to confirm this nickname, and found the following on a Fraternity Rating site: “They are known as the date-rape house, which i[sic] think is stupid, because it happens everywhere.”
I don’t know what’s in the minds and hearts of frat boys who rape, but I think we can all agree that what is lacking is empathy. I know of many documented cases of men who have been sexual predators or perpetrators of intimate violence who have been able to shift their perspective. Certainly, recent events with Hugo Schwytzer have shown that those transformations may be far from complete. However, in many instances, male perpetrators’ ability to recover their empathy is directly tied to integrating a childhood trauma experience that left them believing that the world was filled with winners and losers, and determined not to be one of the latter. Ever. As the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly stated in their Human Rights Report, “We should remember that perpetrators are not born; something has happened to them and we need to find out why some men become violent.”
My anger is a monster. Daddy locks me in my room so everyone can be safe from me. We don’t tell anyone about it, because we don’t want the monster make mommy and daddy feel embarrassed.
I believe that we can change rape culture, but we can’t just begin at the moment where teenage and adult men make sexual decisions. We need to intervene as a culture in the pervasive sexually traumatic socialization of men, and then the equally pervasive green light messages they receive to act that trauma out on women.
And then Chris Brown comes along and makes it so plain and public. And in some ways it opens a window. It gives us a chance to raise the public debate on the sexual socialization of boys, and consider the possibility that if we want different men, we will have to create a culture that raises our boys up very differently.
I see R Kelly’s album cover, surrounded by faceless, naked, girls and I wonder, what is he trying to prove to everyone? To himself? In holding him accountable, there’s an opportunity for healing for him, for his victims, and for our culture as a whole.
Photos: [Chris Brown] Matt Sayles AP, [r kelly] Matt Sayles/Invision/AP