A few weeks ago Chris Brown gave an interview in which he blithely revealed that he lost his virginity at the age of eight to a girl nearly twice his age. Brown’s story has since fueled a tricky dialogue on male rape—a subject too frequently hushed and swept under the proverbial rug. I can only imagine how many people read sensationalist headlines such as “Chris Brown: Only 8-Years-Old When He Lost His Virginity!” and came to unsettlingly shallow conclusions, like:“So he’s always been a womanizing prick? No wonder he beat Rihanna. #worst”or “Swag, young homie! Dassit #baller.”
There is no evading the fact that no eight-year-old, regardless of gender or cultural upbringing, can consent to sex. Brown’s attempt to soften the blow of his revelation by claiming that “it’s different in the country” is so illogical that it doesn’t even require debunking; “the country” is subject to the same laws of sexual conduct as the rest of the nation. He also joked that before losing his virginity, he and his friends watched lots of porn, weren’t scared of girls, and were “kind of like hot to trot.” The crux of the issue is that without their knowing, Brown and innumerable young boys continue to be initiated into a framework of masculinity in which losing their virginity is the final ritual in the rush to join some kind of lifelong fraternity of hustlas.
This pressure for young boys to exert their masculinity so uniformly—by being beasts in the bedroom—is so insistent that to remain virginal past the age of eight would have been perceived by both Brown and those around him as effeminate. Had he instead revealed in the interview that he’d waited until he was legally and emotionally capable of consent before losing his virginity, he would’ve most certainly have been met with a humiliating chorus of “Ha, gayyy!” The language that Brown and his peers speak is one that locates prepubescent sexuality under the definition of masculinity rather than rape, where it absolutely should be. It is more than just whatever Brown means by “the country,” but diverse communities across America that need to reconfigure their visions of masculinity. We must arrive at a masculine identity that doesn’t, by virtue of our static and gendered understanding of rape, decriminalize it.
As equally problematic as Brown’s own oblivion to his participation in this inevitably traumatic system that makes preteen sexuality not just OK but cool, the public reactions of total indifference. It reflects not only how gendered our understandings of rape, victims, and criminality are, but also how racialized. Black males are seen as innately criminal and inherently sexual, and we have become disturbingly comfortable with this trope. The black male body is the body of a perpetrator, not a victim. We need only look at a history and cultural tradition of Tom Robinsons and Emmett Tills to realize this. The suggestion that an eight-year-old boy was the victim of rape is only made more incongruous by Brown’s race. Our social anxieties when it comes to sexual assault are premised on a historical dynamic of male aggressor and female victim, but also on a discourse about rape that subconsciously colors these roles, and it’s getting tired. It might seem unimportant, but the way that we talk about touchy subjects influences our sensitivities, which can be depressingly numb to what we choose to treat with unconcern.