Editorial note: This piece has been updated.
A recent interview in The Guardian revealed that Chris Brown lost his virginity at eight years old to a teenage girl. Disturbingly, the mainstream media has largely ignored the fact that what Brown describes in the interview is clearly rape: eight-year-old children cannot, male or female, consent to sex. People are so busy painting Chris Brown as a scary black man that they ignore the reality that he's clearly also a victim.
The framing of the article is troubling from the start. Guardian writer Decca Aitkenhead sat with Brown in a recording studio for this interview; she makes sure to capture an air of swagger (Brown leaves his sunglasses on, she says, to maintain "the elaborate protocol of cool").
"Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go," Aitkenhead writes. She goes on to quote Brown: "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."
Brown's posturing is not a new tactic. After assaulting Rihanna he went on Larry King Live and said witnessing abuse as a child did not contribute to his battering his girlfriend. This looks like the familiar trappings of masculinity: never show weakness and never admit to being wrong.
In an email interview, Mychal Denzel Smith, writer for The Nation and Feministing, acknowledges that Brown can be hard to empathize with, especially if you have seen those awful pictures of a beat-up Rihanna (and Brown has not elicited much sympathy by asking the public to simply move on without giving reasons or showing remorse). Yet racism is certainly at play here; Brown faces way more scrutiny than a white male entertainer accused of a similar crime. John Lennon, for instance, is celebrated and beloved, his history of domestic violence neatly glossed over despite the fact that he admited to it in a Playboy article near the end of his life. Smith says part of the problem is that we encourage expressions of heterosexual desire from boys even at a young age. The trouble with positioning the idea that abuse is a dream come true, Smith writes, is that this narrative never considers the emotional maturity of the boy "or simply the fact that they can't consent. They're assumed to always be consenting (when it's with a girl/woman)."
And really, the revelation that he Brown was abusive should not cancel out the fact that he was raped at a young age — even if he doesn't know it. Millennials have a better understanding of sexual violence than previous generations, we clearly haven't reached the media. It is troubling that Aikenhead does not devote a single line in the story to a fact that would maybe be clearer to her if Brown were her son or brother. We live in a culture that erases the reality of male rape, although RAINN reports that in the U.S 10% of all rape victims are male. In fact, the media often covers experiences of male sexual assault in a smirking and dismissive way.
Gawker is doing just that: Rich Juzwiak calls Brown "a fucking asshole" for bragging about losing his virginity so young. On Jezebel, Doug Barry writes a screed dismissing Chris Brown's experience as rape and postulating instead on Brown is lying. It’s appalling that someone working on a site that purports to be feminist would play into rape culture by glossing over a clear case of sexual assault in order to take a cheap shot at a vilified rap star. Maybe someone should tell Barry that forced sexual contact is common among teens, or that rape victims often deny the abuse they have suffered, or misrepresent a part of their story
I can understand why Brown would couch his experiences as bravado. Being raped situates you in the position of "victim" and demonstrates a loss of control. In terms of broader rape culture and gender expectations, Smith points to the "truly odious" quality of masculinity that requires men to not express vulnerability. It may create some cognitive dissonance, but we'd all be better off realizing that his revelation of sexual assault means that Chris Brown is both survivor and perpetrator.