The Chris Brown narrative has, until recently, been pretty easy to package. On one hand, the musician has legions of rabid fans. On the other, he’s probably just as well known for his 2009 arrest after assaulting his girlfriend, singer Rihanna. That latter claim to infamy—and the disturbing reaction to the news from the former camp—is still the one that gets the most attention in Chris Brown news. To wit: a major profile of the artist that appeared in the U.K. paper The Guardian on Oct. 4 quoted his take on the incident (“It was the biggest wake-up call”) in its headline.
But that part of the Guardian story—in which he pretty much tells writer Decca Aitkenhead that being abusive is part of being immature—isn’t what’s been racking up headlines in the days since.
Earlier in the story, while Brown is talking about his childhood, this passage appears:
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.”
So, in the last few days, headlines about Chris Brown have changed. For example: Jezebel‘s “Chris Brown Didn’t ‘Lose His Virginity.’ He Was Raped.” And PolicyMic‘s “Don’t Ignore That Chris Brown Was Raped Just Because You Hate Him.” And Flavorwire‘s “Why Is No One Talking About the Fact That Chris Brown Was Raped?” (Brown has not responded to these articles, unless they’re what this cryptic tweet was about.)
The fact that what Brown describes was rape is indisputable: though attitudes may or may not be “different in the country,” the laws in Brown’s home state of Virginia were clearly broken. According to Virginia law, any person who has sexual intercourse with a child under age 13 is guilty of rape, and the penalty for that violation is five years to life in state prison. Virginia’s statutory rape laws don’t even look at children under the age of 13, since “a child under the age of thirteen years shall not be considered a consenting child,” which means that even if an 8-year-old thinks he wants to have sex, he is not legally capable of consenting to it. (Brown would have been 8 around 1997; the relevant section of the law has not changed since before that time.) And rape isn’t the only abuse Brown is saying he experienced: showing pornography to a child is also considered abusive behavior.
(MORE: Was Sex With Children Ever O.K.?)
Some who have drawn attention to Brown’s admission have focused on reconciling their feelings about Brown’s behavior toward Rihanna with the knowledge that he was a victim of child abuse. But, while this is a big addition to the Chris Brown story, that mental conflict nothing new. The ability to condemn a person’s actions while still recognizing that he or she has experienced hardship is basic-level empathy. It’s also something that’s already out there in direct relation to Chris Brown—when the hardships in question were the effect of racial prejudice on his treatment after his arrest and the fact that his stepfather was physically abusive—and it’s barely even a conflict of narratives, since boys who experience childhood sexual abuse are more likely to be violent later in life.
What’s more illuminating, then, is attempting to reconcile Brown’s own way of discussing what happened to him with the knowledge that he was a victim of child abuse.
Reading Brown’s description of the event—grins and chuckles, not being afraid, early access to pornography, attributing early experience to “a beast at it” later—it seems that Brown himself is ignoring or ignorant of the fact that he was raped. And he’s not the first male celebrity to publicly describe childhood sex as a positive experience: Josh Brolin was 11 and lumps that experience in with general teen wildness and Dave Navarro was 13 and “felt like a king.” The director Federico Fellini even said that his experience having sex at age 8 was the inspiration for his cinematic masterpiece 8 1/2.
So Brown may see himself adding a third celebrity narrative to his public story, as possessor of hyper-masculine sexual prowess. He wouldn’t tell The Guardian how many lovers he’s had, but says the number is high and that the women “won’t have complaints if they’ve been with me.” Some early responses to the Guardian article played along with that attitude; Perez Hilton, for example, wrote that the singer “started boning the ladiez at a crazy young age.”
Brown might truly have felt like his experience was something to brag about or, as a thoughtful essay at Colorlines.com points out, Brown’s boasting might allow him to see himself as in control rather than as a victim. But — while there are plenty of people talking about how the circumstances of his losing his virginity and that it happened at such young age — bloggers and others are (understandably) sticking to either acknowledging that Brown was raped or being impressed by his skill with the “ladiez,” not both.
So why isn’t Chris Brown getting left alone to decide how he feels about his own first sexual experience? It happened to him, so why doesn’t he get to say what it was like?
For lots of reasons, says Liz Roberts, chief program officer at Safe Horizon, a victims’-services agency that works with child victims of abuse and adult survivors.
For one thing, she says, Chris Brown is a public figure, so his cavalier attitude toward his experience needs to be questioned. He’s already made his rape public knowledge, and the way he discussed it runs the risk of normalizing the idea of an 8-year-old consenting to sex, she says. It’s particularly important to talk about what happened because of Brown’s gender; Roberts says that sexual abuse is almost as common for boys as for girls but because of the “culture of masculinity” people generally have trouble acknowledging male victims, even though it’s just as bad when it happens to them. “Bottom line, 8-year-olds are not ready, developmentally or psychologically, to be involved in sexual intimacy,” says Roberts. “That’s why it’s illegal.”
In addition, while creating categories of rape is problematic, there is something fundamentally different about child rape, as it involves victims who are incapable of giving consent, rather than victims who didn’t give consent at a particular time. And that means a child doesn’t get to say whether or not what happened was rape. “We always want survivors to come to their own understanding, in their own way, in their own time,” says Roberts. “But in this case I feel like there has to be public dialogue about this. There are systems and laws in place to protect children, so they don’t necessarily get to define their experiences. When somebody is an adult survivor they have that right.”
In fact, Roberts says, it’s not uncommon for victims of child abuse to be confused about the experience at the time. “It can absolutely feel good physically and there may also be a real emotional connection to the person who’s abusing you. Children process those feelings in different ways depending on who they are and what their families and their peers tell them about this kind of experience,” she says. In her experience, however, children who reframe their stories as victories rather than victimization are generally helped in the short run; acknowledging what happened and finding ways to deal with it is a better long-term strategy.
Finally, talking about whether and why Chris Brown doesn’t get to decide whether he was raped may help prevent it from happening to some other boy: “If the conversation is a real one, and not just salacious,” Roberts says, “there could be some benefits.”