We don’t talk about sexual violence committed against boys and men enough. If we did, we might recognize that our very rigid adherence to binary gender roles—and the maintenance of traditional masculinity as a part of this system—can make it very difficult for someone expected to perform “MAN” to tell someone they may have been abused—or to even admit that to himself.
So I’m really not surprised that Chris Brown, in a recent interview, apparently bragged about losing his virginity to a fourteen year-old girl when he was only eight. He spins what you or I might consider child sexual abuse as early practice for “being a beast at it….the best at it.” However he chooses to label his experience is not really my concern, whatever expertise I might have about these kinds of scenarios. If anything, Brown’s experience—or his telling of it—demonstrates the massive pressure men are under to perform heterosexual masculinity, whether at eight years old or twenty four.
I was surprised, however, at how one writer for Jezebel responded to Brown’s comments:
“Of all the pop stars milling about the culture [sic] landscape these days, Chris Brown has a singular talent for making it impossible to sympathize with him even if he’s recounting a vaguely traumatic incident from his childhood. You know, like that time he lost his virginity to [a] teenage girl. When he was eight.”
In a rape culture world that constantly blames and silences victims, is our hatred of Chris Brown’s abusive behavior so powerful that it prevents us from thoughtfully reflecting on his own experiences of victimization? Whatever education Brown got from his peers, pornography, or witnessing the abuse of his mother by his stepfather has undoubtedly played a major role in how he views and treats women. It does not excuse what he’s done, but it provides one window into beginning to understand his abusive behavior within the context of a patriarchal system that teaches men they need to dominate women to feel any sense of power.
I do not find it impossible to empathize with Chris Brown. I do not believe his abusive behavior should be tolerated or excused, but I refuse to hurl hatred at him because he seems to have minimized an experience of early victimization. Dismissing Brown as being “impossible to sympathize with” oversimplifies the complexities of sexual and partner violence and positions him as a scapegoat for many of us—especially white folks—to pile on layer after layer of anger we have toward men who commit violence against women. When we focus all of our attention on the individual behavior of one person, we underemphasize that gender violence is a systemic issue fueled by toxic gender expectations.
I empathize with all of us for having to deal with this screwed up system. I empathize with men who feel so powerless in their own sense of self that they feel they have to prove it through abuse and sexual violence. I empathize with men who got there because they were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused themselves. This reality is a cultural failure which we all share responsibility for changing. Perhaps we can start by investigating the complex negotiations behind each façade of masculinity.