Chris Brown is in the news again. In a recent article by the Guardian, Brown recants the story of losing his virginity. At age 8 with a 14 year old girl. This has sparked dialogue on the internet from various sources who identify that because Brown was far younger than the age of consent (which is 18 in Virginia, where Brown grew up), this couldn’t have been a consensual interaction and was thus sexual assault or rape. While we don’t feel like it’s our place to label or identify Brown’s experience, as we believe that every victim or survivor will have their own healing process on their own timeline, we feel it’s important to have a conversation about male survivors of sexual assault.
We have this idea as a culture that men can’t be raped. That Chris Brown losing his virginity at a young age wasn’t sexual assault, he wasn’t raped, even though he was well below the age of consent. National research states that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. According to a 2005 study by the Center for Disease Control, 16% of males report being sexual assaulted or abused before age 18. Similarly, of males who report being assaulted in their lifetime, almost 70% were assaulted before age 18. As of 2012, the FBI defines rape as: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” In this definition of rape, there is no space for men who are the survivors of assault without being penetrated. This narrow definition excludes the experiences of many survivors who are not necessarily penetrated, but who are unable to give consent.
Rape and sexual assault has historically been thought of as someone, usually a female victim or survivor, being penetrated without their consent. Sexual assault against boys or men is typically equated with anal penetration without consent, sometimes due to age. But very infrequently is there a conversation about the implications of men having intercourse or being the penetrator without their consent. Our culture equates masculinity with sexuality. Men are sexual creatures who always want to have sex, who are always ready for sex, and who always enjoy having sex. Men always want sex and they will always consent to having sex. Because of these cultural and sexual standards, stories like this where the victim or survivor was not penetrated are not equated with sexual assault. This is where biology and physiology come into the conversation. Because in order for men to have sexual intercourse, something physiological must happen: an erection. And if they have an erection, clearly, they must want to have sex. And because they are men, they always want to have sex. And because they are men and they always want sex, it must be consensual and they couldn’t possibly be the victim of sexual assault or rape. Of course, in the conversation about Chris Brown, his sexual experience at age 8 happened before the legal age of consent, which adds legal consent implications that we won’t get into.
It’s a source of guilt and shame for many male survivors of sexual assault who had an erection or even experienced an orgasm during a sexual assault. Despite a situation being uncomfortable, traumatic, non-consensual, manipulative, or an assault, the male survivor might have a biological or physiological reaction, complicating and confusing the situation and the assault for the survivor. When we talk about victim blaming in women, we talk about slut shaming, we talk about alcohol, we talk about what she was wearing and if she was flirting with someone. This biological shame is how we must talk about victim blaming for male survivors.
Sexual assault or rape is any situation in which consent is not given, regardless of the gender, sex, orientation, and body’s physiological response. For many female survivors of rape and sexual assault, there is guilt and shame associated with cooperating during an assault, when the survivor stops fighting back, stops saying no. And there could be a biological or physiological response from that survivor even if the situation is nonconsensual. When our bodies are touched a certain way, there is a physical reaction, sometimes regardless of the emotional stress or pain. This is similar to the guilt and shame felt by many male survivors who experience a physical reaction during an assault whether or not the experiences include penetration. Buzzfeed just published an article about 26 male survivors of sexual assault who are featured quoting what their assailants during the assaults, who are breaking the shame and silence by speaking out.
Again, we’re not here to label Chris Brown’s experience when he was 8 or to join the conversation about the legal implications of having sex when someone is younger than the age of consent, though that is an important and valid conversation that deserves attention. We’re not here to talk about Chris Brown’s relationship with Rihanna and their history of domestic violence, but if we look at Chris Brown as a victim or survivor of childhood sexual violence, we can see a behavior pattern. We aren’t trying to justify or explain behaviors. We want to instead shed light on situations where many male survivors of sexual assault or rape feel shame, confusion, guilt, fear, or any other range of emotions, after a nonconsensual sexual encounter. Regardless of what actions are being done, if there’s penetration or not, if there’s an orgasm or an erection or there’s not, if someone stops fighting to self-preserve: if there’s no consent, it’s sexual assault. And until our culture and our language evolve to a point where male survivors can come forward with stories about being assaulted without feeling like their bodies betrayed them or that it couldn’t have been assault because our culture says that men always want sex, the shame and the fear and the guilt will continue for many male survivors of assault. And for many survivors, the trauma continues long after the assault.
As always, Speak About It wants to be an outlet for sexual assault prevention and healing. We have these conversations to bring light to subjects that are not getting enough attention, and give voices to survivors who haven’t yet found theirs. If you want to share your story with us, to tell your story of assault or of healing, we would be honored to include it in our productions.
For more information about being a supportive friend, please see our resources page. And if you want to talk to someone about something that happened in the past, RAINN is available as an incredible resource. 1 in 6 and MaleSurvivor.org are both organizations specifically for male survivors.