This weekend, Chris Brown told The Guardian that his first sexual experience happened when he was 8 years old, a claim met with doubt from some and horror from others. Brown didn't discuss what happened to him — uh, child rape, and the law is crystal clear about that — as something traumatic or hurtful; instead, he framed his experience as the result of exceptional maturity on his part, the beginning of a long career of Lothario-dom. If a victim of child abuse doesn't consider himself a victim, then does he owe it to the public to be traumatized? And what does Brown's attitude toward his abuse say about the way society treats boys who are victimized?
First, just so we're all working with the same information, the full quote from the Guardian piece,
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."
Like most people with normal levels of human empathy, my stomach flipped when I read that quote. I didn't want to believe it was true, that an 8-year-old boy who in no way, shape, or form can consent to sex was abused by a girl who was older, but also herself maybe too young to consent to sex, likely perpetuating something awful that had happened to her. This sort of thing must happen all the time, but confronting the reality of it is almost too fucked up to process. My brain wants so badly for it not to be true that it did that ugly confirmation bias denial thing, it tried to find ways that it wasn't. I wanted it to be a brag. I wanted it to fit neatly in with the "Chris Brown is an asshole" narrative the media I consume spouts, that I've been complicit in spouting. Before I realized what I was doing, I'd questioned and blamed a victim of sex abuse.
Because there's no reasonable reason to believe that what Chris Brown said happened to him didn't actually happen; the reality is that Brown's qualifier — that things are "different" in the country — speaks to a truth about pockets of culture that still exist in the US. There are places where kids are having sexual experiences that are framed to them as consensual before they're old enough to have lost all of their baby teeth. Facebook friends discussing this Flavorwire article about Chris Brown's sexual abuse swapped stories of growing up in the same area as Chris Brown, knowing kids who had sex at 10, 11 years old and thinking it was "normal." Whether or not I want it to be true is completely immaterial. Fucked up cultural norms that harm children by hypersexualizing them exist. They don't stop existing because I want them to.
While it might not be normal for kids to have sex in middle school or earlier in most parts of the country that aren't "the country," we still, as a culture, are pretty shitty at addressing the needs of men who have been sexually abused by women, or even seeing it as abuse at all. I spoke with Jennifer Marsh, the VP of Victim Services at RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), and she told me that every day her organization works with men who were victimized as children. Many didn't recognize what had happened to them as abuse until much later in life, when they were dealing with lingering aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse (because no boy, no matter how much porn he's watched, "has sex" at 8 — the law says it's rape. The end). Effects can vary from case to case, says Marsh, but they can spur adults to engage in promiscuity, form dysfunctional relationships of their own, abuse drugs or alcohol, and have difficulty managing their anger.
"We [as a society] tell men that they're supposed to want every sexual experience, and that if they don't want sex, they're not normal," Marsh explains, and pointed out that if the genders in Brown's scenario were swapped, the media would discuss it very differently. If Chris Brown were Christine Brown talking to The Guardian about how she had sex with a 14-year-old neighborhood boy when she was 8, no matter how much she "chuckled" during the exchange, the writer would not refer to the experience as "losing her virginity."
Because of the stud/slut sexual double standard, men who have been abused by women and girls often feel ashamed to come forward and seek help from organizations like RAINN. Some spend much of their adulthoods trying to mentally reframe their experiences in a way that doesn't brand them with a scarlet V, for Victim.
The media's embrace of the sexual double standard as it applies to male survivors of sexual abuse doesn't begin and end with Chris Brown. A heartbreaking piece that recently appeared on XOJane chronicled one man's experience of being raped and then dating his (female) rapist for years as an elaborate attempt to control what happened to him. Female teachers who sleep with male teens who are way too young to consent to adult sex are presented in the media as sexy, and talk radio hosts chortle gleefully about how happy they'd be to have sex with a teacher when they were 12. High five, kid-bro.
And there are heartbreaking numbers of male survivors of sexual abuse out there. At the end of its most recently completed season, one Glee plotline featured two characters who had experienced sexual abuse — one male, one female — coming forward. The show consulted closely with RAINN in responsibly constructing that arc, and after the show aired, the organization was flooded with calls from men who identified with what they had seen on TV.
Maybe Chris Brown, in his heart of hearts, doesn't think of himself as a victim. Maybe his peers who grew up in similar cultural environments to Brown and had similar experiences don't think of themselves as survivors. But thinking of oneself as a victim isn't a prerequisite for an act of abuse to be harmful in ways that might not fully manifest until well into adulthood. And glossing over Brown's story that he was molested at 8 as more chest-thumping from a guy with a history of clownishness does a disservice to Brown's own recovery, and to the recovery of other male victims.