“A lot of people don’t believe that a person like me could be victimized.” - Terry Crews
The #MeToo movement has been gaining steam and spreading its influence. In fact, the movement just made headway in South Korea. If there had been skeptics (like myself) in the beginning on how #MeToo would pan out, we can now safely say that that this movement will have a lasting impact. But what that exact impact will be is still to be determined.
We are at a crossroads with #MeToo. On the one hand, we have widespread coverage, the support from many people of influence, and millions of followers. On the other hand, we may not know what to do with this power…
The backlash Terry Crews (Brooklyn Nine-nine star) is getting for sharing his story of victimization, shows us just how far we have to go, and just how narrow our focus has been to date.
In 2016, Crews and his wife were at a function when Adam Venit, a William Morris Endeavor agent, allegedly grabbed Crews’ genitals twice.
During the early days of #MeToo in 2017, when the allegations against Weinstein were racking up, Crews felt compelled and empowered to share his own experience of sexual mistreatment in a twitter thread.
Last week, the actor testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advocate for HR 5578; the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. In a very vulnerable but steadfast account, Crews detailed the profound impact of the sexual assault he experienced.
“The assault lasted only minutes,” Crews said, “but what he was effectively telling me while he held my genitals in his hand was that he held the power. That he was in control.”
The actor explained the many ways in which his story – his experience - has been minimized, dismissed or denigrated: “I was told over and over that this was not abuse. That this was just a joke. That this was just horseplay. But I can say that one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation. And I chose to tell my story and share my experience to stand in solidarity with millions of other survivors in the world.”
In the least surprising turn of events, Crews has received tremendous backlash for sharing his experience and speaking out against sexual violence.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Crews discussed the price he has had to pay for coming forward with his story: “I walk in the room, and the room is split right down the middle,” he said. “It just divides right there. It’s kind of like lightning.”
While much of the criticism has been the par for the course – “it was a joke,” “he was drunk,” “you’re doing this for attention,” “it’s not a big deal,” etc. – some blowback has been new; comments we’ve yet to hear and questions we’ve yet to be asked.
Strangers and peers alike have rushed to dismiss Crews’ experience, and to bring into question his manhood. Countless individuals on social media have asked why Crews didn’t fight the man. Many have commented on how he could have overpowered his abuser, or how he couldn’t have been assaulted because he’s not a woman.
One of Crews' most notable dissenters, Rapper 50 Cent, posted (and then later deleted) a meme on Instagram that featured a photo of Crews shirtless with the words “I got raped / My wife just watched” on top, and a photo below of Crews with a rose in his mouth, with the words “Gym time.” 50 Cent captioned the meme “LOL, What the fuck is going on out here man? Terry: I froze in fear, they would have had to take me to jail. get the strap.”
In Crews’ testimony before the Senate, when saying his first reaction to Venit grabbing his genitals was to be violent, ranking member Mrs. Feinstein asked: “why weren’t you? You’re a big, powerful man, why didn’t you?” (NB: Mrs. Feinstein, in my view, asked this question so Crew would share his answer publicly, but she did so because this is a mainstream perspective.)
These questions and comments are so wrong, for so many reasons, and the fact that we keep saying them, illustrates how #MeToo has failed to provide us with an intersectional lens for dealing with sexual violence.
Masculine means masters of our own destiny?
Those who denigrate Crews reject his lived experience because it goes against the logic of their idealized masculinity that is somehow impervious to assault. (Are we starting to see why it’s called toxic masculinity?) By sharing his story, Crews has placed himself outside the box that houses all of society’s preconceived notions about gender, making him “weak” and “emasculated” to many individuals who insist on maintaining the idea that men cannot be victims because they are some sort of macho demigods.
While this thinking is clearly problematic, I understand why so many gravitate towards this logic: it’s comforting. We create reasons as to why their situation is different from ours.
To argue that only “weak” men can be victims because they “allow” it to happen equates men to (the stereotype of) women, in that they are helpless and unable to control their own destiny in difficult situations. As Hannah Giorgis wrote for The Atlantic, by suggesting that “Crews only froze in fear when targeted by a predator because Crews is uniquely weak-willed, the detractor is insisting on his own imperviousness to harm.”
In other words, we distance ourselves. We create a narrative that protects us. We say “I am safe from such harm because I am not [insert any adjective] like that person.” This posturing of toxic masculinity is simply an extension of any other sort of victim blaming. Saying that she deserved to be sexually assaulted because she was wearing a revealing outfit simultaneously declares that anyone who doesn’t dress like that is safe. Saying it’s okay because she was a tease also means that anyone who doesn’t flirt will avoid harm. Saying Crews (or any man) is a victim only because he is weak means that all those men out there who colour themselves as brave and strong are impervious to sexual assault.
It’s an age old argument that is as understandable as it is harmful and demeaning.
Though approximately 10% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated against men and boys, we would be hard pressed to know this, given how few male survivors speak out. This is due to shame imposed on them for not being "man enough". Shame that they weren’t "strong." That they’ve been “stripped of their manhood.” That they are “weak victims.” It is comments like “why didn’t you beat him up” that cause so many men to stay silent. We’ve built a society where male victims would rather suffer in silence than face the consequences of speaking their truth. All in the name of "masculinity."
Big, Black and bound to be blamed.
Not only is the matter of sexual assault complicated when the victim is male, but being Black adds another layer of complexity to the problem.
While asking a male victim why he didn’t physically challenge his perpetrator may be deeply patriarchal and problematic, it is indeed a viable option for some men. Which men? White men.
To ask a big Black man why he didn’t assault his perpetrator is to remain willfully oblivious about how Black men in North America are seen and treated by the authorities. Besides the fact that a) no person should ever be forced to physically defend themselves from an attacker, and b) we shouldn’t be thrusting harmful gender roles upon men, do we really think it's a viable option for a Black man to punch out a powerful white businessman? Seriously, let’s not pretend we don’t know how that would play out. Crews would have been instantly demonized and ostracized, if not worse.
In his own words, Crews said before the Senate committee: “As a black man in America, you only have a few shots at success, you only have a few chances to make yourself a viable member of the community. I’m from Flint, Michigan. I have seen many young black men who were provoked into violence: They were in prison or they were killed. They’re not here.”
In the case of Terry Crews, we have an individual who embodies almost everything opposite to what we think we know about sexual violence victims. Crews is a big, strong Black man. Our subconscious typecasting begs us to ask, “How can he even be a victim?”
Society places Crews’ stature and race at odds with his experience of sexual assault in two ways: a) these characteristics make his story unfathomable to some, and b) they kept him from physically attacking Venit for fear of being unfairly labelled as “dangerous” or a “thug” or even facing police violence brutality.
While white female survivors face a slew of barriers to justice, individuals from other marginalized groups must battle against many additional barriers.
We need to broaden the woefully narrow profile of survivors whose stories are most likely to be believed. If we only open our arms to those who fit into our confines of what we deem as acceptable and reasonable circumstances, then we leave countless individuals on the margins – we continue to discredit their stories, and silence their voices. While empowering affluent women to speak out against their abusers, we are also disempowering other victims who do not fit into our idealized vision of what a victim is supposed to look like.
As #MeToo has tried to teach, sexual assault has no prototype. There is no ‘usual way’ to be attacked or harassed. It isn’t always done by a stranger. It isn’t always in a discreet locations. At night. Violent. Obvious.
What #MeToo has yet to teach, is that victims of sexual assault and harassment also have no prototype. Victims are not always weak. They are not always female. Petit. Young. White. Cis. Nuns. Angels.
For so long, the patriarchy has restricted the ability of victims to seek justice because it has constricted our definition of a ‘perfect victim’ to something so narrow. Either the victim is a young, chaste white woman who is attacked out of nowhere by a mean and ugly man, or the victim isn’t really a victim at all. And while #MeToo has worked to dismantle some of this, we are creating the same barriers to justice for ourselves when we uphold many of these same criteria for victimhood.
From an optimist’s perspective, we are unfortunately doing ourselves a disservice, and from a skeptics point, we are purposely leaving certain communities in the dust. Either way, we need to do better.
Time to decide.
#MeToo has begun to do the hard work of dismantling our preconceived notions about sexual encounters, gender hierarchies, consent, power dynamics and intimacy. Great strides have been made. But to date, #MeToo has primarily uplifted rich white women in Hollywood.
Meaningful change from this movement hasn’t trickled down to the masses. And it never will unless we work to include everyone – especially the most marginalized – in the message.
If we continue down the same path for #MeToo, we will do what mainstream feminism has always done – left marginalized communities to fend for themselves, advocating only for white women. But if we choose to acknowledge our shortcomings and make the necessary inclusions, we can create a movement that doesn’t simply empower certain women to hold their abusers accountable, but reshapes how we understand sex, gender and race in the context of sexual violence.
The Terry Crews’ of this world – those who don’t fit into the constricted narrative of #MeToo - deserve better. They deserve the same respect and support and resources awarded to white women who come forward with their stories.
If we don’t learn from our mistakes we've made dealing with accepting Crews as a survivor of sexual violence, we will thrust the same misfortune upon other future victims who don’t fit the mold.
As it stands today, #MeToo is a powerful movement that only serves a relatively privilege group of people. Wonderful intentions, but consciously or otherwise, it is pushing the marginalized back into the margins.
We are no better than the paradigm we seek to dismantle if we create the same power hierarchies within our own handmade microcosms. #MeToo will not be the institutional transformation we’ve been waiting for if it only brings along a select few.
#MeToo must be for the people, or #MeToo is for no one at all.