Can we really be surprised when rich and powerful men are accused of sexual abuse?
There’s nothing new but the details about what the Times journalists uncovered about Russell Brand in their investigative report published this weekend. We’ve been through this so many times, the story finally uncovered of a rich or powerful or celebrated man being accused of sexual abuse for years or decades. Russell Brand says all of his relationships were absolutely always consensual.
That’s the first piece of the familiar story – that they got away with it for years because one of the forms inequality takes is inequality of voice – the voice with which you say what’s happened, the voice that’s listened to and believed and respected, the voice that determines what happens.
Another utterly familiar bit is all the people claiming there’s something suspicious about victims not reporting “until now”, a complaint always launched with strategic obliviousness to how often women reporting sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and other abuse set themselves up for more abuse. From Anita Hill testifying about Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment in 1991 to Christine Blasey Ford reporting long-ago assaults by Brett Kavanaugh to Amber Heard even hinting at domestic violence in her marriage, women who speak up too often get punished. Blasey Ford had to go into hiding because of death threats.
“Why didn’t they report?” say people who are exactly why they don’t report: because of people like them looking to attack and discredit victims when they do. And because abuse charges have to be reported to the police, who are often incompetent, biased, corrupt or abusers themselves. Police have sky-high incidents of domestic violence in many places and there’s enough evidence of police racism to give non-white victims good reason to doubt the police are there to help. In London, Sarah Everard was abducted while walking home one night in March 2021, by a Metropolitan police officer looking for any woman convenient to rape and murder.
Women who gathered to protest that horrific rape and murder were roughed up by the same police force and some were arrested. In 2016 an Oklahoma policeman who preyed on Black women was sentenced to 263 years for raping 13 known victims, though at least he was apprehended only six months into his crimes. A New Orleans policeman pleaded guilty last year to grooming and sexually abusing the 14-year-old rape victim he was supposed to help. Too many domestic violence homicides take place after police ignored victims’ pleas for help and warnings they were facing murder. The police are too often part of the problem, not the solution.
Furthermore those few rape cases that make it to court often result in exposure, danger, shaming and months to years of torment in the legal system for victims, as is made clear in accounts such as Chanel Miller’s scorchingly brilliant memoir of her long ordeal after the Stanford swimmer sexually assaulted her. That case resulted in a sentence so light many watchers were outraged and a recall drive was launched against the judge. A tiny percentage of these cases result in convictions, and that too has been so widely discussed in recent years that those who don’t acknowledge it have likewise chosen willful ignorance. A lot of men who have been found guilty of sexual abuse or domestic violence, the rapper Chris Brown among them, are still getting lucrative contracts to perform and promote products. So it’s not hard to understand why Brand’s alleged victims didn’t report earlier.
But there is a lot of evidence that insiders in the fields in which Brand worked knew about the allegations, that women warned each other against him, and that too is an old story we’ve heard again and again. One of the most chilling parts of the Times account is of the 16-year-old who says she got sexually involved with Brand and says he eventually sexually assaulted and abused her; on one occasion, she reportedly said, the taxi driver knew the address she was going to and begged her not to go in. If this is true, even the taxi driver knew.
The Brand story surfaced at the same time as another celebrity rape story, or rather the story of how Ashton Kutcher wrote a letter to the judge praising his fellow TV star Danny Masterson after he’d been convicted of raping two women. It’s worth remembering Masterson got away with rape for two decades before the consequences came, though one of the victims reported the assault in 2004, she says in her victim statement.
More and more I see rape as an act demonstrating the rapist’s power and the victim’s powerlessness to stop, to exert jurisdiction over her own body, to have her words, including “no”, mean something, and that powerlessness continues after when she’s disbelieved or threatened or forced into an NDA. That power and powerlessness are eroticized in the mainstream as well as porn and are what boys are taught to aspire to by the virulent online subculture of creeps like Andrew Tate (who rushed to Brand’s defense, but being defended by Tate – currently facing charges of rape, human trafficking, and sexually exploiting women in Romania – in such matters is an indictment in itself).
“I can honestly say that no matter where we were, or who we were with, I never saw my friend be anything other than the guy I have described,” Kutcher declared, and lots of people on social media repeated Kutcher’s delusion, that the person they see –even if it’s just the person onstage or in the movie – is the whole person and there are no other sides or secrets. One of the most obvious things in the world is that abusers are usually strategic: wife-beaters generally don’t beat their wives in front of people who’d stop them or send them to jail; child molesters are extraordinarily crafty in isolating their victims, hiding their crimes and terrorizing those victims out of speaking up; rapists mostly work at both hiding their crimes and picking victims they think they can get away with raping. You have to be an idiot not to know that too many people treat the powerless one way and the powerful another way, and a lot of powerful and privileged people are that idiot.
“Victims of sexual abuse have been historically silenced, and the character statement I submitted is yet another painful instance of questioning victims who are brave enough to share their experiences,” Kutcher wrote in a letter resigning under pressure because of his previous letter, from the board of a non-profit addressing child trafficking. “This is precisely what we have all worked to reverse over the last decade,” he continued except that on this occasion he was apparently working to perpetuate it instead. So were a lot of others. They still are.
So we just bypass the legal system altogether and go for trial by media; accusation equals guilt? Not one suggestion how to improve the system.
The alleged victims don't seem all the powerless to me in this case; anonymous claims of past crimes are believed implicitly and actions taken based on those claims without any evidence other than the claims themselves (the only evidence that has been provided is one accuser had a record of going to a rape crisis centre, but I haven't seen details of that other than it happened).
The powerful get away with all kinds of shit the powerless don't. It's odd this is the only kind of case where they get annoyed enough to take up their pens.