Blaming the Victim

05.09.13

Why Are We Not Calling the Danny Brown Oral-Sex Assault ‘Rape’?

The gender roles may have been reversed, but the rapper’s oral sex sneak attack shares a lot in common with classic sexual assaults, says Amanda Marcotte.

The scene played out like so many sexual assaults do. It’s a party atmosphere. The assailant takes advantage of the victim’s lowered guard and the general air of debauchery to force sexual contact on a nonconsenting person. After the attack, the apologists run in, denying that what happened counts as sexual assault and implying that the victim secretly wanted it. The victim’s erratic reactions are dissected endlessly to distract from the obvious: that sexual contact was forced on the victim against his will.

We’re talking, of course, about Rapper Danny Brown, who was performing at a show when a female fan got on stage and sprung oral sex on him. He reportedly backed away quickly. Despite the fact that the victim in this case is male and his alleged assailant female, the story demonstrates how cultural norms, peer pressure, sexual shame, and gender roles all intersect to make it easy for sexual assailants to operate without much consequence. Kitty Pryde, who is currently touring with Brown, wrote an excellent piece for Vice expressing frustration at how most people don’t seem to see what happened as an assault:

What is Danny supposed to do? The girl was at mouth-to-dick level already and to push her away, he would've had to either push her face or kick her, and even the most gentle of either motion would immediately be labeled “abuse” by anyone watching. Guys pushing girls is not a good look when people are taking photos. So what was Danny supposed to do, other than back away, which he did?

Pryde is spot on with her description of how a sexual assailant uses social pressures to subdue a victim. However, she makes one major mistake earlier in the article by suggesting that such a thing wouldn’t have happened to a woman because there’s a widespread understanding that nonconsensual sexual contact foisted on women is wrong. I wish she were right about that, but sadly, as the recent cases in Steubenville, Halifax, and Cleveland, Texas  (among thousands upon thousands of others) show, plenty of men force sexual contact on women, often in full view of others, only to have a sea of supporters deny that it was rape.

Instead of focusing on the unusual gender reversal in the Brown case, it might be helpful to look at what this case has in common with other sexual assaults. While many people assume that a rapist’s favorite tools are weapons and physical force, in most sexual assaults, including this one, rapists prefer to use social manipulation to disable their victim’s defenses and to avoid punishment for their crimes. Here are some of social pressures that sexual assailants use to get away with their crimes.

Victim’s fear of bucking gender norms. Kitty Pryde discussed in her piece how the woman who attacked Brown used the pressure on men to seem powerful and in control. For other male victims, most of whom are attacked by other men, the fear of appearing emasculated or weak can often discourage them from reporting their attacks, or even admitting to themselves that it was a sexual assault at all.

For women, the pressure not be seen as difficult is frequently exploited by sexual predators. Researcher David Lisak wrote about this after spending two decades researching sexual assault and interviewing rapists, saying that those who target women tend to groom their targets by “testing prospective victims’ boundaries,” i.e., to look for women who struggle to speak up against a man who is bullying them into doing things they don’t want to do. Women are frequently told they're hysterical or they’re overreacting when they push back against men who are testing their boundaries, meaning that widespread gender norms placed on women force them to choose between being liked or being able to protect themselves against the manipulations of rapists.

Brown was put in a situation where calling what happened sexual assault meant being shamed by people who think that straight men should want sex all the time from any random woman who offers it.

Sexual shame. As Pryde noted, Brown was put in a situation where calling what happened sexual assault meant being shamed by people who think that straight men should want sex all the time from any random woman who offers it. “And if he had figured out a way to gently push the girl off him immediately without looking like he was smacking her in the face, he’s faced with attacks on his masculinity by every douchebro in the building,” she explained, adding that he would have also faced homophobic attacks claiming that any man who doesn’t like being forced to have sex must be “gay.”

For gay men who are sexually assaulted, fear of these kinds of homophobic attacks can be equally bad, with people expressing skepticism that gay men can really be raped by other men or hinting that this is what the victim had coming for being gay.

Women face many layers of sexual shame if they report rapes or fight back against their rapists. Being accused of being a slut who made it all up to cover up for sexual choices is a near certainty in every acquaintance-rape case, even in cases like Steubenville or the Orange County case where there is photographic evidence that the victim was too incapacitated to give consent.

At other times, the sheer shame of being sexually “impure” because of the rape can cause a victim to suffer in silence. Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped by a religious fanatic at age 14 and raped repeatedly for nine months, recently explained to an audience at Johns Hopkins how the pressure on girls to remain pure and virginal crippled her ability to fight for her freedom. Prior to her kidnapping, she sat through an abstinence-only class where a woman who has sex was compared to a chewed-up piece of gum, and so when she was raped, she lost the will to escape her rapist:

But for me, I thought, ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum.’ Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.

The sexual pressures on men and women may be different, but rapists are deft at exploiting them in all their forms to shame their victims into silence.

Confusing situations. One of the ways a rapist subdues a victim is simple: Confuse them so they struggle to understand what’s going on until the attack is already underway. There’s a number of ways to do this. The most common, according to David Lisak’s research, is to target victims who have been drinking, because alcohol slows people’s ability to respond to confusing situations. It helps if the victim is blackout drunk, but as the Danny Brown situation showed, sometimes just the general air of chaos in a party situation can be used to distract the victim for a sneak attack.

In other cases, rapists confuse their victims by building trust. Often, they pretend to be a friend or mentor, so that the victim is completely blindsided when the rapist attacks. In some case, family relationships are used for the same ends.

Female-on-male sexual assault is the least common kind of sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly different from more common situations where men attack women, children, or other men. What we should learn from this story, and all others like it, is that sexual assault is not inevitable. On the contrary, we have the capacity right now to make it harder for rapists to corner, bully, and shame their victims. By simply agreeing that it’s never okay to push sexual contact on the nonconsenting, and standing up to those we see doing it, we can prevent a lot of sexual assaults. By resisting the sexualized and gendered shame heaped on victims, we can make it safe for them to come out against their assailants. Sadly, that didn’t happen for Danny Brown and that doesn’t happen for most rape victims. But if we start to change society now, maybe it can happen for victims and would-be victims in the future.