Less than a week after Victoria Coren-Mitchell was calling for nuance in how we discuss and describe difficult issues like the sexual abuse and rape of children, Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian has adopted a novel approach – simply ignore it.
Aitkenhead was interviewing R&B star and convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown. She began the piece with a journalist’s conceit: promising her interviewee the benefit of a blank slate to tell his story. One senses how it is going early on.
His parents divorced when he was seven, and before long he and his sister and mother were living with her new husband in a trailer park, where in the past he has described lying in bed listening to his stepfather beat his mother.
A couple of paragraphs later, my stomach turned over.
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.” (Now 24, he doesn’t want to say how many women he’s slept with: “But 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.”)
I spent many years writing feature interviews, albeit at a rather lower level then Decca Aitkenhead’s prime weekly national column. Nonetheless I know a scoop when I see one. Chris Brown is here disclosing that he was seriously sexually abused at eight years old, by a girl in her mid-teens. By that age he had already been exposed to so much pornography that he considered himself ready to be sexually active. You might think it warrants a follow up question or two, a few lines of journalistic commentary, anything to draw the reader’s attention to a dramatic and important revelation. In fact Aitkenhead does the journalistic equivalent of changing the subject after an awkward fart has slipped out.
The quoted paragraph is grimly fascinating. There is not the slightest suggestion that Brown considers himself a victim, not for a moment does he suggest he was anything but in control of the situation. First he makes a joke about it. Then he flaunts it as a badge of masculine achievement and slides quickly – far too quickly – into boasting of his sexual prowess. This is precisely how many abused boys rationalise and cope with their experiences in a culture where men can never admit to weakness, and particularly never admit to having been used and abused by a girl. By the end of the paragraph, the reader could easily forget that he was eight years old. Eight.
I can quite understand why Brown would think of the experience in these terms, and would not doubt for a moment that the way he described it to the Guardian is exactly how he describes it to himself. For this he should neither be chided nor condemned. However for Decca Aitkenhead to describe it simply as ‘losing his virginity’ is repugnant. Worse is the casual indifference with which the interview simply moves on from there to the next question. At no point is the term ‘abuse’ mentioned, far less ‘raped.’
Regular readers will know I am loath to play the rhetorical trick of reversing genders, but in this case it is surely appropriate. I repeat, he was eight years old. If a female interviewee described a sexual encounter at that age with a 14 or 15 year old boy, would Aitkenhead be so coy with her language, so casual with the reveal? It is inconceivable. Chris Brown is quite entitled to rationalise the incident in whichever way works for him, but the rest of us should not simply accept it without acknowledging that it is a profoundly unhealthy interpretation.
Of course we do not know what additional quotes ended up on the cutting room floor, but it is important to consider why this section of the interview was published as it was. The first factor is that our culture still has a real problem in acknowledging and recognising male sexual victimisation by women, even when it is verbalised vividly in front of us. There may also be a race element at play here too, the stereotype of the hypersexualised black man – part demonization, part assumed status, part fungible objectification – may amplify damaging assumptions about insatiable masculine sexuality. I’m reminded of a 2009 interview with a different R&B star, when Lil’ Wayne made a similar disclosure to TV presenter Jimmy Kimmel. That interviewer persisted with a level of ‘wayhey’ banter about being “seduced” by a grown woman at age 11, even when it became clear that the star was deeply uncomfortable with the tone.
My strongest suspicion, however, is that Aitkenhead quickly moved on from the topic for another reason. Chris Brown sits on a very specific pony on the pop media carousel. He is the bad boy; the woman beater; the villain of the story. He is the abuser so shameless that he commissioned a tattoo on his neck looking remarkably like the bruised face of his battered girlfriend, Rihanna. To suddenly portray him as a victim of child sex abuse would upset the narrative, invite sympathy in place of scorn. It would be a brave journalist who would risk that barrel-ride. It is so much easier to present him as a porn-crazed sex beast from an early age. Unsurprisingly, it took the Daily Mail only a couple of hours to turn the Guardian interview into that precise story.
It is a mistake, of course. It does the victims of child rape no favours to assert a linear path from abused to abuser, and whatever light the new revelations might shine on Chris Brown’s personality, they do absolutely nothing to excuse or explain his own violence. He continues to choose his own path and must take absolute responsibility for his own behaviour.
Meanwhile it does no one any favours to hide the sexual abuse of children behind euphemism or journalistic sleight of hand.